Rancho Mirage basketball senior Tyrell Robinson vividly remembers the Rattlers’ season-ending loss nearly a year ago.
Ahead by double-digits halfway through the second quarter of the team’s second-round game against Harvard-Westlake, Rob Hanmer’s team fell apart in the worst of ways, eventually trailing by double-digits going into the locker room before a 75-58 loss.
Robinson and the rest of his teammates would have an opportunity to return the following season — the team and the school was yet to produce a senior class in its infancy. Still, losing stings.
“We were so close. I remember going in there, and Coach said we needed to stay focused,” Robinson said. “We were actually winning at one point, but then it all went downhill, and I got on the bus and was crying. I don’t like losing.”
Since that game on Feb. 20, the Rattlers haven’t lost.
Yes, 27 regular season games and 27 victories, a record-setting season for a team from the Coachella Valley.
It’s a record Hanmer is quite familiar with, too. During his days coaching Cathedral City, his 2007-08 Lions squad started the season 25-0 before dropping the final game of the regular season to rival Palm Springs.
For Hanmer and his players, though, running the table wasn’t the original goal for this season. But when the rest of your goals fall into place — winning every tournament, including their division of the MaxPreps Holiday Classic, and clinching an outright De Anza League title — the wins start to pile up.
“It’s nice to be undefeated, but we all have a goal in mind, and that’s to make it to CIF and win the finals,” Robinson said. “The fact that we’re undefeated right now, it’s a big deal out here.
“But that goes on the backburner at this point. The playoffs are a whole different animal.”
A majority of the Rattler contingent has been pursuing this goal for three years now, since the school opened and Hanmer left his post one city to the west for a new challenge. Last year, in the team’s first varsity season, they managed a 20-9 record without a single senior, while sharing the De Anza League title with Twentynine Palms, who had a matching 10-2 league mark.
At times, though, the Rattlers’ youth showed.
Rancho Mirage lost three of their seven games in the two tournaments the school hosted, all by single digits and two to valley opponents Xavier Prep and La Quinta. In games decided by less than 10 points, the Rattlers were 3-4 on the season.
The close loss that may have stung the most came toward the end of the regular season slate with an outright league title on the line at Twentynine Palms. The Wildcats prevailed 62-59 to secure an eventual shared title with the Rattlers.
Hanmer said having three seniors on this year’s squad has improved their urgency in those tight down-to-the-wire situations, because there is no “next time” or “next season.”
“Mentally, we’re a lot tougher this year than we were last year, and having those three seniors on the roster that understand this is it … it’s such a big deal to have that leadership when kids are getting tired,” Hanmer said.
The nerves of yesteryear reappeared in the team’s championship game of the Rancho Mirage Tipoff Classic in December, which they eventually won 74-64 over league opponent Desert Hot Springs.
From there, Hanmer and his players said things just started to click.
The Rattlers realized that when they didn’t play their best, they could still play with every team on their schedule.
And when they did play their best?
Well, just watch out.
“When we get going, we can put up some numbers in a hurry,” Hanmer said. “We’re fun to watch.”
Sure, the Rattlers are no Chino Hills, if you remember the Open Division champs of the MaxPreps Holiday Classic that routinely put up triple-digits against the best teams Southern California — and the country — have to offer.
The Rattlers, with an up-tempo offense that plays to the team’s high athleticism, have beaten 18 of their 27 opponents by at least 30 points, and 11 of those reached 40 points at the end.
Each of those blowouts stem from that loss in the playoffs a year ago.
“We still have a chip on our shoulder from last year, losing in the second round,” junior Charles Neal said. “We want to get past that this year, so every time we step out on the floor, it’s a learning opportunity. We’re out there to get better.”
Blowout wins aren’t exactly what you’re looking for as a coach heading into the playoffs, where competition only gets better and some games involve multi-hour bus rides on school nights.
But Hanmer said he believes he put together as tough a schedule as he reasonably could have.
He even admitted trying to force his Rattlers into a loss.
“We went to Los Angeles on January 18th (for the MLK Classic at LACES High School), and I was actually trying to schedule a loss, and the tournament director thought he was, too,” Hanmer said. “The kids just didn’t take it.”
Against the Renaissance Academy, who was the top seed in the final CIF Southern Section Division 6 poll, the Rattlers stormed out to a 25-16 lead at halftime before pulling away for a 65-33 victory.
Along with that game, the Rattlers have handily beaten top Desert Valley League talent Palm Desert (75-29) and La Quinta (77-59). Against Grants, considered a top-three team in the state of New Mexico, the Rattlers pulled out a tight game late 74-64 for the championship title of their MaxPreps Holiday Classic division.
“When we got through MaxPreps, I got quite a few texts about running the table,” Hanmer said. “But one of the secrets to people who are successful is they stay in the moment. We really try to stay focused on that game that week and not worry about the overall record or where we’re ranked or what people are saying about us.”
Two games against league-contender Twentynine Palms still lurked, but both times around, the Rattlers emitted a sense of calm confidence they lacked a year ago, particularly in the road matchup two weeks ago.
“We were really calm, and all our fans watching us were even saying how calm we looked,” Robinson said.
With under a minute to go, the Rattlers stood tied with the Wildcats, their undefeated season in the balance. But with 38 seconds left, Neal drove and dished to an open Daryn Evans, who rolled in the winning layup for the 66-64 win.
Admittedly, Neal said it wasn’t the team’s strongest performance of the season, but that almost made the win more impactful.
“Every night, you know you’re not going to play your best basketball, but we did well and learned that if we do things right more often than the other team, we should come out on top,” he said.
The number of wins no longer matters. The only thing regular season wins pro
vide is a better seeding and some confidence going into do-or-die situations. Hanmer has had to watch a one-loss team fall in the third round of the playoffs and also saw his 1996-97 Cathedral City team take home the Division 3-AA title.
His players say he brings those teams up nearly every day in practice, not to intimidate the Rattlers, but to show the level of confidence he has.
“He tells us he knows what a good team is, ‘cause he’s coached good teams,” Evans said. “He thinks we’re definitely one of those.”
When it comes down to winning a title at the high school level, Hanmer understands that wins from December matter very little. Maturity from the bottom up is a must when loads of pressure fall on his team’s shoulders.
“It’s more about that day. Are the sophomores here doing what they’re supposed to do, or are they thinking about their girlfriends and school?” Hanmer asked. “That’s the question I have, if we’re tough enough to finish the game.”
Robinson has no doubt.
“Last year, we were kinda childish,” he said. “We’re still kids, but we’re trying to be young adults.”