For La Cañada High School boys’ basketball coach Tom Hofman, it is hard to believe it’s been 25 years since he guided the Spartans to the program’s first CIF-Southern Section championship, but it’s not difficult to remember.
When asked about his 1991-92 team, Hofman didn’t hesitate to say, “They had the best chemistry of any team we’ve had. They really won for the team. That’s why they were so special.”
The unforgettable group that included 7-foot All-American center Richard Mandeville, who went on to play Division I ball for Bob Knight at Indiana, Ryan Asplund, Brent Ballard, Jimmy Evans, Eric Sanchez and Grahame Dicks will be recognized for their accomplishment on Friday evening, Feb. 3. The LCHS athletics department will host a halftime ceremony with members of the 91-92 team, and a reunion after the game will be held in the south gym, giving the La Cañada Flintridge community an opportunity to greet the players.
“I can’t wait,” said Mandeville, who was likely the most highly recruited athlete in La Cañada’s history, regardless of sport. “There’s been a big email thread going around. I know a majority of us will be there, and I’m excited. I haven’t seen some of the guys. Time really does fly.”
Mandeville and his teammates cemented their place in LCHS history by defeating San Dimas, 62-53, in the CIF-SS Division 3A title game at the L.A. Sports Arena. They were the first group to finally get over the hump after four consecutive quarterfinal round playoff exits from 1988-91.
The Spartans’ lack of luck in the postseason worried Hofman when his team advanced to the quarterfinals. Despite leading Harvard-Westlake of Studio City by double digits, the coach urged his players to not let their foot off the pedal.
“I think Brent sensed my anxiety,” Hofman said. “He came to me said, ‘We got this, coach.’ And they won.”
The confidence of the team was typical, as was Ballard’s assurance to his worried coach. The point guard was a calm leader in the locker room that helped counter Asplund, the ultra-competitive, clutch shooting guard who seemingly hated losing more than anything. His brother, Sanchez, was one of the most talented players on the team, as was Evans. The core group of seniors had played together since elementary school, and Mandeville was the final piece to the puzzle for La Cañada.
“We just had the appropriate pieces to make a good run,” Hofman said. “Brent was great at point guard, and Mandeville was a very good big man. Jimmy Evans was a great all-around player and good athlete. Sanchez, who was a sophomore at the time, turned out to be one of the greatest players La Cañada has ever had. And Ryan was as competitive as any player I’ve had. He was the player most like me. He was so mad when we didn’t win. The pieces were just perfect, and they just liked each other so much.”
The team’s chemistry on and off the court was noticeable long before its historic run. Longtime assistant coach and former LCHS teacher Jim Harvey sensed something special about La Cañada’s newest players, and he did something he had never done in his time assisting Hofman.
“I told Tom, ‘I have to coach these kids,’” Harvey said. Asplund, Ballard, Dicks and Evans were seniors on the 1992 team along with reserve Dustin Powell. “They’re a very special group. I still have a picture of them on my desk in my home, and I will never put it down. It was the highlight of my career.
“We never had the chemistry we had that year,” he added. “They loved each other and they still do.”
As freshmen, they went 18-1 and carried that success with them all throughout their careers at LCHS. Every win at every level gave the players a confidence that they could beat any team.
“Our confidence grew and grew,” Mandeville said. “Honestly, we weren’t cocky, but we went into every game with a confidence that we were going to win it. I don’t remember ever going into a game thinking, ‘I don’t know if we can beat these guys.’”
The team’s chemistry and swagger propelled them to big wins over good programs, including a come-from-behind 71-69 victory over highly regarded Pasadena in the La Puente Nogales Tournament. La Cañada went on to defeat the host team, 66-62, to win the tournament crown.
Ballard saw the win as a turning point for the Spartans.
“From there on, I knew we were special,” he said. “We went on to beat Santa Margarita and Muir with [eventual NBA player] Jacque Vaughn. We just didn’t lose from then on.”
The Spartans only lost two games in the regular season and coasted through the Rio Hondo League, earning a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“I’ll never forget when I made the call to CIF [for playoff information],” Harvey said. “I was ecstatic. I told Tom, ‘We can do this.’ I thought it was a playoff group in which we could win.”
The Spartans encountered little trouble in their first two postseason games, clobbering Moorpark, 82-54, in the first round before defeating Harvard-Westlake, 92-50, in the quarterfinals.
The team’s real test came in the semifinals against St. Bernard of Playa Del Rey, but the Spartans passed with flying colors with a 78-64 victory.
“It’s an awesome experience to go through a time like that with my friends and then with my brother Eric,” said Asplund, who led the Spartans with 16 points in the championship game. “You could not have scripted it any better.”
The Spartans’ historic run ended in the second round of the CIF State Division 3 playoffs, where they were edged by Costa Mesa Estancia, 55-51, in front of a near-capacity crowd at Arcadia High’s large gym.
“This team’s goal from the beginning was to win the CIF championship,” said Hofman, who guided La Cañada to another title in 2011. “When they did that, it was almost surreal to go back to the gym and practice. State was not a part of the thinking process, but they achieved their goal.”
They finished the season with a 27-3 record, which still stands as the greatest winning percentage by any team in the program’s history. La Cañada also established a school record with 22 consecutive victories and galvanized the entire city.
“It was an event that not only brought students together, but the whole community together,” said six-time LCF mayor Dave Spence, who was a councilmember during La Cañada’s run. “To see everyone come together and working toward the same goal was remarkable.”
While Hofman and Harvey credit the team’s success to its bond and the athletes’ acceptance of roles, the players attribute every win to their head coach.
“There’s no question that Tom is a fantastic coach,” said Asplund, who has kept in touch with Hofman and still lives in LCF. “He knows how hard to push you. He knew who could be pushed, and who had to be handled with softer gloves.”
“He had a system and we bought into it,” Ballard said. “We knew our roles and never talked about leading scorers. We just wanted to win for each other and for Coach. We had each other’s backs. We had the coach and the talent to get it done.”
The experience forever changed the players and helped them find success later on in life. Asplund and Ballard have taken the lessons from Hofman and applied them to their own children.
“We put a lot of work in, and when you see hard work come to fruition and get an end result like we did, it is awesome,” Asplund said. “It definitely cements the idea that I can be successful. I just have to work hard and compete. Hofman pushed me as hard as he could, and there’s value in pushing someone beyond their comfort zone to maximize your abilities.”
For everyone involved, it was an unforgettable journey, one that will certainly live on forever at the school. The athletics department in 2015 created a Wall of Champions in the on-campus Hotchkin Gymnasium (formerly dubbed the LCHS “Sports Palace” by Harvey), celebrating every championship, including the 1992 boys’ basketball crown. The CIF-SS plaque and team photo can be seen in the main entrance of the north gym.
“It’s awesome,” Mandeville said regarding the team’s legacy. “It’s something that will always be there. Any kid that signs up to go to La Cañada, that has passion and sees the history and the trophy case with the CIF championships, they’ll want to do the same thing. When you walk into that gym, the display is right there, and there’s no one that can take that away.”