Hoover’s undersized, controlling, defensive state tournament push has been a long time coming.
Even if their standout senior class couldn’t see it as second-graders.
“We were always close, going to the YMCA and trying to get better,” said Hoover guard Alijah Thomas. “When we got to Hoover, we had already been playing together for years and the chemistry was there.”
Thomas and point guard Khallid Edwards joined the Hoover pipeline with the Des Moines Knicks, a city youth squad that also fielded classmates Keenan Jackson and Dejorian Thedford.
They’ve all had to grow up to get to Wednesday night’s Class 4-A quarterfinal against Ames. Their style never changed.
“I’ve always been small and on the Knicks we never had a true big, so we’ve been playing small-ball forever,” Edwards said. “There were teams that tried to bully us, but we could play with anybody. It was just closing out wins that we had to work on.”
With a Des Moines-raised lineup of players the entire Metro Conference has seen develop, the Huskies (21-1) are enjoying school district and city support.
The Knicks groomed a class of kids that would run-it-back at King Elementary and Four Mile.
“I had no idea we’d all be at Hoover,” Edwards said. “It seems crazy that we’ve been playing together for this long. I thought we’d be playing against each other by now.”
They learned how to stay on the court despite their diminutive statures.
“We knew we were small, but we just wanted it so bad and we all wanted to make it, so it never stopped us,” Thomas said.
Star guard Chris King would join the Knicks later in elementary school and eventually started for Hoover as a freshman. Edwards and Thomas got to take the reins as sophomores, winning the Metro with a young, six-player rotation.
“Like any high school coach, you do evaluations and due diligence and see kids play,” Hoover coach Courtney Henderson said. “Chris came in highly touted. I knew they’d all come in and be successful because they’d all been playing together for so long.”
They fit Hoover’s mold for aggressive man-to-man defense and disciplined guard play, confident winners ready to lock down their city rivals for the rest of their high school careers.
Then the Huskies hit last season’s speed bump.
“We started the year with seven of our top nine guys ineligible and we only had our full roster for one game the entire season,” Henderson said. “Off-the-court issues, grades and overall discipline directly affected our performance on the court.”
Hoover underwhelmed to finish 13-10 and faced an off-season of hard work.
Pedigree didn’t matter anymore. The Huskies had to come together to reach their basketball goals, which previous senior classes had set before them, qualifying for state tournaments in cycles: 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011.
“We understood what was really at stake,” Edwards said. “We all matured and realized we had to get in class and get our grades up and stay focused off the court so it could reflect on the court.”
Hoover has arrived this season.
The only blemish for the third-ranked team in 4-A came to a gigantic Waukee lineup, and the Huskies still boast the stingiest defense in the state (867 total points allowed) and the Metro’s top scorer (King, 18.3 points per game).
“It’s kind of a hand-in-glove fit,” Henderson said. “Hoover has always been known for its guards and I knew these kids were coming up. We developed a relationship at an early age, through practices and open gyms, and it’s worked out.”
Relationships and roles have evolved. King is the stylish shooting guard, Thomas the silent aggressor and Edwards the pesky and talkative leader, and the pieces around them fit, thanks to Henderson.
“I love that guy,” Edwards said. “We’ve had disagreements, like any coach and his point guard. But at the end of the day, I know he wants the best for me and the team and he wants to see us all succeed.”
Douglas Wilson and Nate Lee provide length and athleticism in the post. Thedford, Y’Vez Quinn and Dom Marschel are sparks off the bench.
Hoover will need all of them, uniting with the former Knicks stars, to return to the 4-A title picture.
“We’re coming in to defend and win,” Edwards said.
Hoover tips off against Ames (17-6) at 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Arena.