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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on January 3rd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 43

Bulldog basketball's back on track

Men's basketball returns to the competitive circle

BY KRISTINA SEWELL

The Joe White Memorial gymnasium at Allan Hancock College has seen its share of good basketball and talented athletes. During the glory days of the program, it racked up 15 Western State Conference (WSC) titles, and one state championship title. But the last 30 years have been more quiet and less competitive—until recently.


Hoopsters:
Even with 15 new players, Hancock basketball is making a comeback, taking titles at tournaments in Bakersfield, Santa Barbara, and Cuesta.
PHOTOS BY KRISTINA SEWELL

This season, the Bulldogs are off to a good start and are definitely making themselves known as serious competitors and contenders in the WSC. Currently boasting an 11-9 record, the team took the title at the Bakersfield tournament, and two consolation titles at the Cuesta and Santa Barbara tournaments in November, finishing third at Cuesta and second at Santa Barbara.

The team has been preparing for league play with 14 tough road games, going up against stiff competition to make sure it’s ready for league; the Bulldogs are currently ranked second in conference.

Head coach Ralph Gorton is in his fifth season as coach and led the team to its first WSC title in 37 years last season. He was also named 2011-2012 WSC Coach of the Year.

“We’re doing well so far,” Gorton said. “We’re ranked 15th in the state right now.”

He came into the season with 15 new players and only three sophomores. With such a young team, he admits that there have been some challenges.

“They have to learn how to compete to be better; the competition in high school is much lower,” he said.

Despite recruiting a new team, Gorton said one of their biggest strengths is their depth.

“We have athleticism and 15 solid players,” he said, adding that their weakness is immaturity.

With the kind of talent this team is pulling, Gorton said there’s no excuse for them not to win it all this season and repeat last year’s title win. Talent, solid statistics, four key players, and a knowledgeable coaching staff are helping return Hancock basketball to its former glory.

The team is averaging an impressive 80.9 points per game, taking down 21 rebounds and racking up 20 assists per game; it’s shooting 49 percent from the field. Also, four Bulldog players are pulling double figures this season.

Demetrius Thomas, a 6-foot-8 freshman shooting guard from Connecticut, is averaging 19.9 points a game and is one of the leading rebounders. Aggressive, quick, and with the perfect amount of height, he’ll be one to watch at Hancock.

Leron Fisher, a point guard from Baltimore, is averaging 12.1 points per game and leads the team in assists. Josh Varney, the 6-foot-9 freshman center from Vermont, averages 14.1 points per game and is the Bulldogs’ other leading rebounder.

Sophomore shooting guard, Khufu Najee from Berkeley, Calif., rings in at 6-foot-4 and averages 15 points a game with eight rebounds. Also a team captain, Najee boasts a 4.0 grade point average and is being heavily recruited by several Division 1 programs, according to Gorton.

Najee, who transferred to Hancock from San Jose State, said this team has a lot of talent. He also added that the team has new players and new egos that make things challenging, but he said the team can only go up from here.

“We’re progressing slowly,” Najee said. “Our No. 1 strength is our depth; we can bring anyone off the bench and they will contribute.”


Mad air:
With a team deep in talent, athleticism, and speed, head coach Ralph Gorton said there’s no reason Hancock basketball can’t win it all this year.
PHOTOS BY KRISTINA SEWELL

Najee said the team’s communication has improved and that these players are responsible enough to take themselves out when their game is off.

“Things are playing out well for us,” he said. “I can’t wait until conference.”

Najee, who’s been in contact with numerous basketball programs, said his top three picks are Boston University, University of Idaho, or Cal Poly; he’d like to major in journalism.

With official league play set to begin in January, Gorton and the Bulldogs are working hard to prepare, with Cuesta likely representing their toughest competition in league.

“We’re trying to get better every day in practice and improve in at least one area,” Gorton said.

Gorton, previously a coach at Cuesta and a former college basketball star, has a formula for success that’s transformed Hancock basketball into an elite program once again.

The first part of the formula is fitness. Gorton said the team is constantly running and working out in the gym before and after practice to improve their endurance and their game.

“I always tell them fitness never takes a day off,” Gorton said. “One of our strengths as a team is our fitness and youthful enthusiasm.”

He admitted that the process of building a solid team is daily and never ending: “You have to get them to buy into the program and learn how to compete in the classroom and gym.”

The team has been competitive in the classroom as well as on the court; the team GPA stands at a solid 3.55. Gorton is big on accountability, mandatory study hall, and making sure the kids go to class every day—he even makes the team send picture texts of their professors to ensure they’re in class.

The last part of Gorton’s formula is recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. He uses his worldwide basketball connections to bring talent to the Central Coast. Promoting beautiful weather, a fun lifestyle, and Hancock’s stellar gym facility, Gorton tries to out-recruit other coaches.

This year’s team features only one local player, from Lompoc; the rest are out-of-state players, with one who came all the way from Japan. Gorton has previously recruited from as far away as Serbia, Sweden, Germany, and Finland—to name a few. With a small pool of talent to recruit from here on the Central Coast, Gorton, in order to be competitive, said bringing in outside talent is necessary.

He also acknowledged that administrative support and a knowledgeable coaching staff have contributed to the team’s success. Also in his fifth season at Hancock, assistant coach Vincent Conde is a major part of the program.

“He’s been with me for eight years,” Gorton said. “I expect him to replace me here.”

New to the staff this year is Jonathan Ramirez, who played at Hancock from 2006 to 2008; and Stewart Kussler, who played at St. Joseph before playing at Chaminade in Hawaii.

Kussler, who previously coached youth, said this year’s team is very fast and very athletic.

“They trained hard to get in shape during the three months of preseason,” Kussler said. He added that with their toughness, speed, and versatility, Hancock is one of the more talented teams in the state.

Despite his intense coaching style, Gorton cares more about helping players get to the next level, not just winning. Athletic Director Kim Ensing, who’s been at Hancock as long as Gorton, said Gorton truly gets what this level is about.

“He’s always willing to help guys get to the next level,” she said. “Its a tough job mentoring community college student athletes.”

Over the course of his coaching career, Gorton has secured full scholarships for more than 50 players for four-year universities. He’s also helped place six players professionally both here and overseas; he has 11 players playing right now at the four-year level.

“I can build a good rapport with young people, and I’m honest with them,” Gorton said.

Honesty is big at the junior college level, where more unscrupulous coaches may promise glory to players and never follow through. It was Gorton’s honesty and his follow-through that drew Najee to Hancock.

“He is brutally honest, but does it humorously,” Najee said. “He has helped put a lot of schools in contact with me, and I appreciate everything he has done.”

Gorton, incredibly personable off the court, has an obvious passion for the game of basketball, which he shares with his players.

“I want them to emulate how I played—by preparing every day, with intensity and love for the game,” Gorton said.

Everyone knows that when you can’t play anymore, you coach—and to Gorton, this is significant.

“It’s everything to me to mentor these guys to be better players, better people, and to have better lives,” Gorton said.

The Bulldogs will embark on a series of road games before returning home to begin league play.

Staff Writer Kristina Sewell is brutally humorous. Contact her at ksewell@santamariasun.com.