After a memorable playoff run two years ago, San Marino High School head basketball coach Mihail Papadopulos and his program suddenly had high expectations to live up to last season.
The Titans managed to qualify for the CIF Southern Section playoffs despite a 4-6 record in Rio Hondo League play and won a first-round game before falling to No. 4-seeded San Luis Obispo.
It was a season that ended in disappointment but one that made a big impact on this year’s group.
“Last year, I think we got caught up in the expectations of the results and what they should be,” admitted Papadopulos. “Sometimes, you lose sight of the process. Our process was good, but that drill-to-drill, day-to-day, relationship-to-relationship process is something we made sure we didn’t miss. We don’t want to miss every little nugget of the process, the good and the bad. We want to enjoy it.”
The seniors also learned from the experience and made sure they created an environment that welcomed the underclassmen, which includes four juniors and three sophomores.
“It’s obvious every team has been different,” said senior Michael Baldocchi, who in his third year on the varsity team. “My sophomore year, we all got along super well and meshed well. Last year was a little more difficult but this year, I feel like we’re closer to the same team from my sophomore year. We play well together as a team and get along on and off the court.”
The coaching staff and seniors have also been more open with each other this season, which encourages accountability and improves communication.
“It’s an honest group,” Papadopulos said. “They understand it’s an imperfect group. In that imperfection, they’re honest about the areas we need to work on. They’re not afraid to work on them and hold each other accountable.”
“I think it helps a lot with communication on the court,” said senior Cristian Mata. “With our chemistry, we benefit how we play and how we’re able to execute several plays and our defense. Our chemistry as a group is benefitting us on and off the court.”
The Titans graduated 10 players and lost Andrew Quach, one of the team’s top scorers, to transfer, making this year’s team relatively new. What the players lack in experience they make up for in chemistry and Papadopulos hopes that brotherhood will motivate the group.
“We’re returning about three points from last year’s team, so we had to start building off those returning players and miracle grow these guys as fast as we could,” Papadopulos said. “We were very talented last year and very athletic, but we learned that chemistry is a mysterious thing. It’s hard to develop great chemistry. This year’s a team is a completely different set of people and these guys know it’s so important. They have a unique relationship and really care. It’s a gritty group. They work hard and have put in a lot of time in the offseason to improve.”
The team had to come together because it lacks an athletic go-to player who could take over at any moment. San Marino’s box scores will be different each contest, and Papadopulos expects everyone to contribute, including the sophomores.
“We have to play off each other’s strengths,” said senior Eric Fu. “We have shooters, ball handlers and great defenders. We have to build the team’s strength up instead of developing one player.”
Baldocchi, Mata and Fu will certainly be big contributors this year, but they credited other teammates for holding the group together and motivating each other.
“Brian Zhang is a guy who has had his ups and downs this year, but he’s definitely come back strong,” Baldocchi said. “He’s worked hard and earned our respect. He’s also giving a strong voice off and on the court on how we should act.”
Football standout Chris Wicke is also expected to make an impact on this team. “He’s one of our bigger bodies and very strong,” Mata said. “He’ll get in there and battle for rebounds.”
Senior Jason Wee is another leader who has earned the respect of his teammates and sets the tone for each practice.
“He may not be the most athletic or most strong but he has a work ethic that the team can follow,” Fu said. “He leads by example even though he’s not our leading scorer.”
Neven Husson, Ethan Deng and Brendan Fagerberg are the three juniors on the roster, and Sean O’Brien, Ethan Mo and Lemeul Li will see time on the court as sophomores.
“It’s definitely our youngest group,” Papadopulos said. “We have talented sophomores and they are most likely going to play big roles. We’re speeding up their IQ and understanding of the varsity level. Our junior group is also interesting. Deng has a scoring ability that will be important for us.”
San Marino opened the season with a 31-28 victory over Baldwin Park on Nov. 15 and followed that up with a 56-45 loss over a tough Flintridge Prep squad on Nov. 19. The team will travel to Baldwin Park to compete in the Sierra Vista Tournament this week.