On Feb. 25, 2012, almost exactly one year ago, the Paly boys’ basketball team lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the St. Francis High School Lancers in the semifinals of the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division II championship tournament. This was the last game Israel Hakim (‘12), the team’s second-leading scorer, and captain Alec Wong (‘12), the team’s leader in assists and steals, would play as Vikings. Six months later, in August, coach Adam Sax found out that the St. Francis game had been star player E.J. Floreal’s (‘13) last game in a Paly jersey as well.
With E.J.’s unexpected departure after last season, the basketball team lost its leading scorer and rebounder, who averaged 11.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. E.J.’s father, Edrick, the former director of track and field at Stanford University, accepted the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky last July. E.J. was given the choice to finish his senior season at Paly, but opted to join his family in Lexington, Kentucky. As a forward for the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School basketball team, E.J. is now averaging 11.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.
Despite the attention placed on E.J.’s departure, the members of the basketball team were determined to move on and forge their own identity.
“I remember in the [San Francisco] Chronicle, when they put us in the [preseason] rankings, and the caption was ‘If only E.J.Floreal had stayed.’ But it’s never like we were thinking, ‘Oh, we need to prove anyone wrong,’” guard Mathias Schmutz (‘13) said. “Maybe in the back of our minds, but I think the whole time we had our team and we were going to do what we could with the players we had, and we just did a good job focusing on our objectives and accomplishing them.”
Even though last year’s team was arguably more talented on paper, this year’s team has gone undefeated in league play and is 23-1 overall. They have won every league game by a margin of over 10 points and are poised to enter CCS play this month. With a likely Open Division berth, the Vikings will make their first appearance in the Northern California playoffs since Jeremy Lin’s state championship victory in 2006.
This success is due to a combination of veteran experience and an influx of new talent, with important contributions coming from the entire team rather than a single star.
“I really like the team chemistry,” guard Aldis Petriceks (‘13) said. “I think we have a lot of guys who are really unselfish and our skill sets mesh together better than they did last year. We all just work really hard as a team together and we trust each other.”
E.J.’s departure, coupled with the graduation of the class of 2012, which included such talents as Hakim and Wong, forced new and returning players to step up and fill the void.
Despite only moderate expectations, the team started off the season with an overall record of 9-1 before entering league play. Its record in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) De Anza division is a perfect 11-0 and with a win over Cupertino High School on Feb. 5, the Vikes clinched first place in the league. This success is driven not only by returning players such as current leading scorer Aubrey Dawkins (‘13), but also by new additions to the team.
Three key additions to the team this year have been guard Scotty Peery (‘13), forward Eilon Tzur (‘13) and center Keller Chryst (‘14).
Peery and Tzur both made the team last year but chose instead to play on the same National Junior Basketball (NJB) team, which lost only one game. Chryst was sidelined by a foot injury and chose to take the season off.
“[Not playing] was obviously a bummer, but I knew I wasn’t done with basketball and I wanted to keep playing,” Peery said.
Peery’s work throughout the year has helped him become an outside threat for the Vikes. Of the players with at least 20 three-point attempts this season, Peery’s 37% from behind the arc is the best on the team.
While Peery has found his niche on the offensive side of the ball, Tzur and Chryst have teamed up to fortify the Vikings’ defense.
“Keller has been really helping us with rebounding because we didn’t have many rebounders coming back, and he’s by far the leading rebounder,” Sax said. “Eilon is our defensive stopper. He’s been pretty consistent with that all year. Very unselfish when he shoots.”
Part of Chryst’s impact is the sheer size he brings to the team. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and 230 pounds, he is the largest starter and brings a physical presence that was previously lacking.
“Keller has completely changed the team,” Tzur said. “If you take him off, we are a really short team. A lot of trouble getting the boards and playing the way we want. When he comes on the court we suddenly become a bigger team. He gets all the rebounds. He’s really competitive.”
Tzur’s work on defense has been key in carrying the Vikings past their opponents and is what allows them to maintain such high margins of victory.
“Eilon is just a really good defensive player and he gets his hands on a lot of balls, he gets a ton of deflections,” Peery said. “He’s had several games where we’ve put him on the other team’s best player and he holds them to 5 or less points. I think Troy [Whitford] (‘14) on Homestead, [SCVAL’s leading scorer], didn’t score in the first three quarters.”
With three new talents bolstering the roster, Dawkins, Petriceks and Schmutz have stepped up as veterans to help the team succeed.
Dawkins leads all Paly scorers and is tied with Whitford for the league lead, averaging 18.7 points per game. He also leads the team in total rebounds and steals, making him a standout performer and a vital component of the team’s offensive and defensive presence.
Secondary scoring on the team is spread among the remaining players and is facilitated by Schmutz, who leads the team with 95 assists on the season, an average of 4.8 per game. This season, the coaches have aimed to spread the ball around more.
“I think the offense changed [since last season],” assistant coach Eric Olah said. “We do a lot more movement. It’s all about moving, getting the extra pass, finding the open guy.”
With responsibilities distributed more evenly across the board this year, the team members have found themselves working together better than in previous seasons. Heading into the CCS playoffs this year, the players are hoping this new mentality will help them avoid another disappointing exit.
“Our entire team, we really like each other as people and there is no one on this team that I can’t say I’m friends with,” Petriceks said. “It’s great when you have an entire team of guys who trust each other and are willing to spend time together and put in the effort to help one another.” <<<