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Believing In Each Other PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 30 January 2014 18:03

   Photo Credit: M. Terry / El Sol
They’ve Come A Long Way — Spartans Ruth Perez (left) and Linda Verdin, both
seniors and captains, are enjoying Sylmar’s first winning season since 2009-10.

After A Rocky Start, The Sylmar Girls Basketball Team And Coach Alan VanHook Are Making
A Run At The Valley Mission League Title

“Don’t Give Up On Us.”

Those five words have a lot to do with the success the Sylmar High girls’ basketball team has enjoyed so far this season; a 14-6 overall record, and a 5-1 Valley Mission League record, which had the Spartans in first place going into this week’s games against San Fernando and Kennedy.

They might have even saved the season — and a coach’s job. Those five words were sent in a text to Spartans Coach Alan VanHook from guard/forward Ruth Perez, a senior and a team captain. Perez didn’t know it at the time, but VanHook was going through a crisis in confidence.

He had taken the Sylmar coaching job in June after one nondescript season as the boys’ coach at Golden Valley High in Santa Clarita, and assistant jobs at Saugus High and West Ranch High in Valencia. VanHook was replacing longtime Spartans coach Les Thompson, whose teams had won league titles in the early 2000s but had not enjoyed a winning season since 2009-10. VanHook, who also works as a personal trainer, was going to change things in the way the girls played and how they conditioned.

He wanted them to play the game faster. He wanted them play man-to-man defense rather than zones.He wanted them to physically wear down teams through endurance since the Spartans lacked great height and girth. That meant a lot of running. Mind you he was already coming in late as head coach; he wasn’t cleared by the Los Angeles City Section to work with the team until July. And he was trying to change the team’s culture as well as it’s direction. Not surprisingly, he ran into resistance.

He Thought About Quiting “When we started, they wanted to get rid of me,” VanHook said. “Thompson was popular, but they had gotten complacent and not winning. I had a lot of resistance from the players and parents.

“I almost wanted to get out of there.” Such a parental reaction would be understandable. They may not always know basketball, but if they thought something was harming their child they would hector the school administration for a change.

The players, at first, were caught unprepared for the upheaval VanHook brought. “When I first started, it was hard,” said Linda Devin,18, a senior guard and a captain. “He [VanHook] came to us strong — ‘you guys are gonna KNOW what running is’ — and he would [have running drills] like ‘okay, fourth quarter.’ I’m huffing and puffing and it’s like, ‘fourth quarter? And then he'd ‘overtime,’ and ‘double overtime.’ He’d even had us go a third overtime.

I was not used to it. “And he’d challenge us: ‘you can’t do it, you can’t do it.’ And I was not gonna be like ‘of course I’m just gonna throw up, let me just chill.’ He would still see me running. But it was hard. And very different.” The team began to adjust to the the drills and conditioning. The change in basketball philosophy took more time.

There were a couple of early losses where opponents scored easily and often against the new defense. Some of that was on VanHook; he had scheduled a couple of difficult early tournaments to speed up (no pun intended) the team’s learning curve. But the Spartans already knew about losing. If they were going to lose and have no fun, why bother coming out? This is about the time Perez,18, sent her fateful text. “I’d been on the team since the 10th grade,” she said. “And our coach (Les Thompson) was a great coach, but there were games where you could see he gave up on us.

If we were losing bad, he’d just sit us down and not talk to us. “I really didn’t want that for my last year being here. I wanted a coach that would be with us the whole way through, whether we were winning or losing. To me Coach VanHook is doing that.” “Don’t Give Up On Us.” VanHook took the message to heart. “I’d had some soul-searching to do,” he said. “But that message came out of nowhere…it kept me there.” Not Changing His Style But he wasn’t going to alter his approach of preaching relentless, man-to-man defense that swarms ball-handlers and pushes the tempo of the game from half-court to all-out. “I’m a big fan of pressure,” he said. “Teams don’t do well with pressure.

Everybody plays zone; I wanted to create a style like I played, and one that is hard to prepare for. You can’t simulate the speed and traps everywhere because teams don’t play that way. “I took them to a tournament where I knew they would get blown out. But it let them see that, with hard work, we could be at that level. They got a taste of facing big girls who could run and play. The early tournament was a big indicator.

The first game we played they were scared. The next game we were down by ten but the other team was grabbing their shorts. Our girls weren’t tired. We won by 20 after being down by 15.

They started to believe.” Devin and Perez average 7.8 and 14 points a game respectively. But their greater value has been on defense. VanHook calls them his top defenders, making sure the other players keep up the level of intensity needed to apply constant pressure. The coach has basically turned over the team locker room to them, a responsibility both players say they relish. “We’re a family off and on the court,” Devin said.

“On the court we’re united; we try to communicate, especially in practice.

That is our main goal this year, communicating…coming from JV, we had been more of a family, where varsity was more individual since I’ve been here. It was ‘oh, this is what I do best so give me the ball here.’ We’re now more like pass the ball around, shoot, get the shooter, take that three or get the layup going in. When I came in varsity, I wanted to emphasize that. I know I tried. [But] we needed to be more like a family.

In years before there was drama. And we wanted to put that aside and play.” “It’s a big responsibility, but we manage it well,” Perez added. “It’s our locker room and we keep everything good and focused. We play music, and we pump each other up.

And if there is an issue, we all sit down and talk about it, air it out.” Winning Has Caught On They are also, cautiously, talking about doing more than just winning games. The only league loss, going into the Jan. 29 game with San Fernando, was to Van Nuys, and the Spartans will play the Wolves again.

Winning the Valley Mission League is plausible. So is being competitive in the City Section Division III playoffs. At least that seems more plausible than back in the summer and fall, when the Spartans were just trying to keep from throwing up from all the running. “When he first came in he told us we were going to put a [championship] banner up,” Perez said.

And we’re like ‘yeah, Coach is funny, you’re all talk.’ And now we’re halfway through the season, in my mind is we’re good enough. That’s what keeps me going.” And should the Spartans manage to win it all? Maybe the banner should read as follows: “Coach didn’t give up on us. And we didn’t give up on him.”