Pacheco High’s boys basketball team feels it has progressed beyond the point of just being happy competing. The Panthers are looking for victories this winter.
A few players – Juwan Epperson, Frank Ginda, Maurice Harden and Wyatt Orozco – learned a little bit about winning and toughness this fall during the football team’s first winning campaign.
“Anything’s possible. We have the talent to be a No. 1 team, it’s just the mindset,” Pacheco coach Tyrell Jenkins said. “In football you can out-physical people, but in basketball it’s more of a skill set. You have to be able to shoot, finish, stop them from scoring, so there’s so much more that you need in this sport. My kids work their butts off, so anything outside of a top-three finish is a disappointing year for us.”
It won’t be easy though – the Panthers graduated nine seniors last year, most of whom played key roles. Austin Luigard (now playing at Gavilan College in Gilroy), Le’Andre Wright (second-team all-WAC) and Paul Parks on the inside, outside shooter Daniel Marquez (first-team all-WAC), and guards Jacob Parks and Lakhan Patel have all departed.
“We did lose a lot of last year’s key pieces as far as basketball players, but with losses comes gains,” Jenkins said. “We get a little more strength from having a lot of football players that are part of the basketball team. Not a lot of basketball savvy as far as knowing where they should be and how they should be there, but they work hard, and they compete every possession.”
In their place, Edgar Iglesias is expected to step up to fill Marquez’s role, while Ginda, Orozco and Harden are expected to hold down the paint.
“Guys who normally wouldn’t play 5 are going to have to play 5,” Jenkins said. “Mo is more of a 3 or 4, but with lack of size, he’s going to play a lot of 5. Frank is going to play a lot of 5, not 4. Robert is going to have to be a 5. When Wyatt’s healthy, he’s going to come back and play 5.”
One of the most experienced returners is Epperson, who saw significant playing time as a sophomore last year.
“We’ve got a lot of toughness now. In football we had to toughen up. So that’s what we’re doing is toughening up the basketball team,” Epperson said. “We’re more strict on them. You have to be here on time. You’ve got to do it right. If it’s not right, it’s not good.”
At the beginning of football season, football coach David Snapp described Epperson’s approach as making a coach say, “No, no, no... yeah!” Jenkins feels the same way.
“It’s the same as being in football. He wants the ball, he really wants to compete and win, you just don’t know how he’s going to go about doing it. That’s the Juwan Epperson factor,” Jenkins said. “He’s a very talented young man, he has a lot of skill sets, but like I said, we can design something, and he can do something completely different and make it work and look good, but it is not how we drew it up. So you take the good with the bad.
“He’s one of our highest-energy guys. He’s a slasher and a shooter. I’m trying not to hold kids back in the program. I’m trying to let them flourish in their own way, but just trying to control them to make it a team aspect.”
Structure, though, is something Epperson says the program will need to be successful. It’s something Jenkins said will come along as the season progresses and the players enter more of a basketball state of mind.
“Just doing plays. Instead of doing freestyle, doing plays,” Epperson said, “that’s what we need to work on. That’s what big teams do. Winning teams.”
The Panthers are experiencing a rash of injuries, and none of them happened on the court.
Ginda played the last few football games with a cast on his right hand, the result of a wrist fracture. The junior practiced twice with the basketball team, but once the cast came off, Jenkins made the call to hold him out until the second week of December. Orozco dislocated his shoulder in practice during the football team’s by week and will also miss some time, and Iglesias, who played soccer and was also the football team’s starting kicker, has had knee problems since taking a hit during the Patterson game.
“We have a lot of our big guys down, so you might see early in the season us playing a lot of guards,” Jenkins said. “But that makes us a better team later on, because a lot of people will get a lot of playing time to see what they can do and how they perform. You want to win early, but it’s not everything. In our league, three teams get to go to the playoffs. It’s not like football, where you have a 6-4 record or 7-3. It’s the top three go to the playoffs. So I’m hoping our injuries now will helps us later on.”
Between injuries and the holiday break, the Panthers were shorthanded enough that former player Jacob Parks helped out during Tuesday’s practice, providing a body for a five-on-five drill. Even Jenkins has stepped in, and learned for himself just how aggressive his players can be after one of his guard gave him a busted lip going for a loose ball.
“Like I said, we have to play at a different style, so we’re more aggressive, more active,” Jenkins said. “It might not be fundamentally sound, but that’s the team I have, so we have to adapt to it.”
‘They’re like brothers’
The Panthers gained a new but familiar face this season with the transfer of Jose Delacruz, a former Los Banos High athlete. Delacruz and Octavio Jimenez faced off three times last year as the starting point guards of their respective junior-varsity squads.
“A lot of these kids in our program, both Tigers and ours, have been friends since junior high and elementary school,” Jenkins said. “Octavio and him are like brothers. Every time I see one, I see the other. If I tell them one message, they both get the message. They work hard together, they play well together.
“It’s just a family bond, that we hope is contagious with the whole team. Their effort has been out of this world since we reunited them.”
Jenkins said since Delacruz’s family moved into Pacheco’s territory, the junior won’t have to sit out a year as he would if he had just transferred in (this is pending paperwork from the section). Delacruz adds depth to a team already brimming with guards.
“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on our defense because of our guards,” Jenkins said. “We have to box out 6-9 guys, 6-5 guys, and no one’s going to give us an excuse, so we have to do it, matter if we’re 5-10, 4-9, 5-11, you have to box out like you do a big guy. There’s only one way of doing things, and that’s 100 percent effort and heart. We have very feisty guards, and I don’t see any of them backing down.”