Back in the summer after graduating nine seniors from his Desert Valley League title-winning roster, Palm Springs boys’ basketball coach Chris Howard would have certainly taken the spot his Indians find themselves in now.
Three games remaining, tied atop the league. Championship destiny firmly in their own hands.
But Howard and his roster feel like the Indians’ life as the valley favorite was short-lived, and that’s something they want to change over the next eight days.
“Everyone wrote us off, losing those nine seniors, and that’s really fueled our leaders, Damion (Lee) and Kaelan (Richter), the other returners, the newcomers, that we don’t get any love,” Howard said. “Definitely, winning this year would be way sweeter. The first one was good for me, but this was way sweeter.
“Two years ago, we lost a triple overtime game to La Quinta for a league championship, and last year we ran away with it, and this year are right in the thick of things. I think we are the team to beat, and this year just proves it.”
That isn’t to say reaching a chance to repeat didn’t come with tall obstacles to hurdle. Losing all but three players from that title-winning roster meant plenty of youth, even in one of the holdovers, starting point guard Kaelan Richter, who’s only a junior.
Those first-time varsity guys, led by Richter and senior Damion Lee, are now the targets of DVL opponents’ ire, which they personally didn’t earn but must battle through nonetheless.
In his four years with the Indians, Howard said he’s quickly picked up on how much the rest of the valley loves to see his team falter.
“We’ve always kinda had that ‘It’s okay being the villain’ attitude,” he said. “It’s okay with people not liking us. We’ve always had that, even when we didn’t win two years ago.
“I didn’t understand it until my second year. At my other schools, coaching in college, when you lose, you lose. Everyone loses. But when we lose, it’s like ‘PALM SPRINGS LOST!’ It was a big deal, and I can tell people love beating Palm Springs, but it keeps us focused, and every game means something.”
Separate from their opponents’ emotions, Howard and the Indians find themselves in a situation where certainly each game means quite a lot. With three games remaining, Palm Springs is tied at 7-2 with Palm Desert, Indio and La Quinta.
Each of the other three will travel to Palm Springs High School for a game before the end of the season Feb. 10, and the math is pretty easy for the Indians. Win out, and a solo league title is again theirs. Lose, and things will start to get very messy.
Only Indio also holds that power, having to play its three foes all on the road. Palm Desert and La Quinta could both win out but wouldn’t necessarily hold the title outright.
To achieve what Howard thinks his Indians are capable of, Palm Springs will have to embrace the idea opposite of a defending champion. The Indians haven’t fared well on defense this season, dropping two of three games they trailed in late. Against La Quinta, Xavier Prep and Cathedral City, Howard said, his players came out a little lackadaisical and were lucky to survive one of them.
“When we’ve struggled, we’ve been the counter-punchers,” he said. “Games when we’ve gone out and dominated and asserted our plan and our will on teams … we just wore them down.
“Then you’ve got Xavier Prep, where we were down eight at halftime. Against La Quinta, we let Pierce Sterling score 19 in the first half and dug ourselves too big a hole.”
It’s been in those losses, Howard said, where his Indians have learned the most, preparing them for this difficult stretch better than any win could have.
“It’s all about experience. In the games we’ve won, there were mistakes we made in the last minute we can’t make, but in the games we’ve lost, we’ve done some really good things in the last minute,” he said. “Against Cathedral City, we were down 10 with four minutes to go and got it tied with 25 seconds left.
“Against La Quinta, we were down eight in the fourth quarter and cut it to one with one possession left. It’s not always about the outcome. We preach it’s about the process.”
Perhaps the Indians’ greatest strength, whether rightly held or not, is their unmitigated self-confidence. They believed in themselves far earlier than anyone else in the valley.
But at times, that same self-confidence has become a problem, too.
“When we’re down 10 or 12, we’re confident we can come back. ‘Hey, it’s no big deal. No need to panic.’ And that’s a great strength,” Howard said. “But it can also be a weakness, like ‘Hey, we need to go. Let’s press that button, we need to go now and get after it.’ Sometimes all of a sudden it’s the fourth quarter and we’re down eight and we finally get locked in and super engaged.”
Going into these final three, Howard and Richter unsurprisingly agreed in saying there isn’t one game that sticks out as more important or more exciting than the rest. For the record, they host the Blackhawks, who beat them 58-56, on the final game of the season.
What Howard does believe, even if other teams may not vocalize it, is the other three teams have them circled a little bigger than the rest. And that’s okay. The Indians are ready.
“Everybody’s game versus Palm Springs is their Super Bowl, and we’re okay with that,” Howard said. “Last year, there wasn’t much excitement, and now it’s a little like March Madness in February.
“I know they like beating us, but we like beating everyone in the DVL, too.”