Although the highly-regarded Santa Monica High boys’ basketball team lost three of its first four games this season, Coach James Hecht didn’t think major changes were required.
Some corrections were necessary, like making the extra pass and tightening the defense. But Hecht knew he had five seniors as starters — all kids who grew up locally and have had basketball experiences together for a long time.
Now, for the first time in Hecht’s 16 years as head coach, Samohi has qualified for the CIF championship game. The Vikings will play Saturday against Leuzinger High of Lawndale.
The case can be made that this is the best team Hecht has had. That statement would inspire a debate because there have been other successful ones that reached the CIF semi-finals.
But when I saw this team for the first time I saw why it had begun a long winning streak. All five starters were between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4, athletic and interested in executing a suffocating full-court press.
“I feel I’m the luckiest guy,” said Hecht. “My wife and I are from Santa Monica, we live near the school with our children and I get to teach math and coach such a dedicated group of players.”
The Vikings went 10-0 in the Ocean League, defeating a formidable Inglewood team twice. They upset No. 1 seed Chino Hills in the third round of the CIF playoffs. They won a coin flip, allowing them to play the semi-final game at Santa Monica College instead of at Colony High in Ontario.
The team has been an inspiration to the Viking family. Many former players have turned out, including some from the last Samohi CIF championship basketball team, the 1987 Vikings coached by Cliff Hunter.
Former players gave sent emails to Hecht and to this reporter, several now living in other states and following the team via smmirror.com.
“It’s a unifying experience,” says Hecht. “Once you’ve gone through Santa Monica High you’re connected regardless of were else you go.”
Crowds grew larger in the Samohi gym as the wins mounted and the atmosphere for the semi-final game at SMC was positively electric.
Fans have followed the team on the road too, in some cases severely cutting into the opponent’s home court advantage.
The championship game will be against a formidable opponent. Leuzinger played a close early season game against LA City Section power Westchester. In its semi-final Leuzinger eliminated highly-regarded Loyola convincingly.
Win or lose, Samohi has earned a berth in the state tournament the second week of March. Both CIF 1A finalists qualify.
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