Undefeated in Record, Champions at Heart

By Kaiyo Funaki

kaiyo.funaki@gmail.com

 

The men’s basketball team sat anxiously in the film room, their undefeated record and championship aspirations hanging in the balance. There was nothing they could do to prepare—no game plan to execute, no half-time adjustments to make. 

Consider it cruel fate that the team that had consistently imposed their will with an unrelenting offense and stifling defense now too had to experience what their opponents felt every game. For the first time that season, the players were completely and utterly helpless.

It was March 12, and the 30-0 Rams had just concluded their morning walkthrough in preparation for their Elite Eight matchup against Riverside. They were coming off of a 44-point drubbing of College of the Redwoods in the NorCal Regional Final, with just three more victories at the CCCAA state championships standing between them and the college’s fifth-ever title.

However, there was a sense of impending doom amongst the team that the bags they packed for their road trip down to Lemoore were done so in vain.

As the coaching staff awaited an official decision from the CCCAA regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the players couldn’t help but notice the dominoes falling in their direction.

The Ivy League took initiative two days earlier when they shut down their tournament. The next day, it was the NBA that discontinued their regular season. Each of the Power 5 conferences followed suit that Thursday morning, and by then, everyone knew that the writing was on the wall.

Yet, when head coach Justin Labagh and his staff finally walked in and confirmed what the players had already expected, it didn’t make the harsh reality any easier to accept.

“We wanted to end all the relationships that had been built… with a bang,” small forward Seyi Reiley said. “I can’t tell you if it would have been worse to have lost or to have never played at all.”

Miles Norris of the City College Rams taking a shot as the Redwoods team try to block him in the Northern Regional Finals, on March 7, 2020. Photo by Eric Sun/The Guardsman

“I think everybody, including our coaches, we’re all heartbroken,” point guard Kyree Brown said. “There was a lot of tears, a lot of frustration, and a lot of anger. It’s something that we couldn’t control.“

For a team that dictated nearly every second of play en route a perfect record, that feeling of vulnerability was an unfamiliar one.

The Rams started the year atop the preseason Coaches Poll as the No. 1 seed and never once relinquished that position for the ensuing four months. They crushed San Diego, the preseason No. 2, by 36 in just their second game and swept Bay Valley Conference powerhouse Yuba by an average margin of 28 points in their two matchups.

Rival Las Positas came the closest to defeating the Rams, but that seven-point margin was the only victory within single-digits and just one of three games that didn’t come by 25 or more points. 

Associate head coach Adam D’Acquisto highlighted a quality that separated this team from the ones in years past. 

“Sometimes, teams need a loss to kind of reset and refocus, but that was kind of the maturity level of last year’s team. We didn’t need that loss. The guys never stopped listening to us,” he said.

The players were aware of their growing win total but remained disciplined in their approach, no matter the opponent. They knew that if they put in the work, everything would come together.

“We watched film daily on either our practices or the other opponent’s game,” point forward Mek Udenyi said. “We were always trying to find ways to get better, even though… we’re winning a lot of games, scoring a lot of points, we were still finding weaknesses.”

That their hardest-fought battles came during intrasquad scrimmages at practice only contributed to their success. 

“Our practices were a lot more intense and even more competitive than our games,” Brown said.

Their unparalleled combination of talent, competitive fire, and chemistry led to some video-game-like numbers. The Rams dropped a season-high 126 points against San Mateo and obliterated Cañada by 77 points. They scored 101.7 points per game, which Labagh considered to be “dialing it back a little bit,” and beat opponents by an average margin of 39.2 points each game.

City College led the state in scoring and assists, with seven players averaging double-digits in points, a testament to the depth of the squad and the willingness to cast aside individual pride for the sake of the team.

“I knew that our team was so deep that even if someone didn’t show up, someone else would,” Reiley said. “Even if five guys were having a horrible night, the next five would step up.”

Labagh, he of 485 wins and three state titles in 17 years as the Rams head coach, considered the 2019-2020 team to be the greatest of his illustrious career.

“It was the best team that we’ve put together,” he said. “Not by much; we’ve had some other great teams, but if I had to say, I’d give this one a nudge.”

It was this confidence that led many of the players to believe that had the circumstances gone differently, there would be a banner currently hanging in the rafters commemorating their season. 

Instead, many have since departed to play at Division I programs, and the missed opportunity to conclude their time at City College with a championship still lingers in the back of their minds.

“Every time I go out there, I’m playing for that City College state championship, kind of like a chip on my shoulder,” combo guard Nate Robinson said. “Because I never got the chance to do that, I gotta do it somewhere else now.”

With time, though, they have come to appreciate the greatness their team achieved and understand that their brilliant campaign was not defined by that missing banner but rather by the personal growth they made, the bonds they forged, and the memories they created.

“I went for two years, changed my life, helped me get into a four-year school. I got better as a player and matured as a man,” Udenyi said.

“[City College] understood how bad I wanted to win and how bad I wanted to play at the next level. All a kid can really ask is to have people believe in you and love you, and that’s what City did,” Brown said.

And for Reiley, who is just one of two players from this undefeated team to return next semester, there is a sense of pressure to finish the job that his former teammates didn’t get the chance to. Nonetheless, where pain and frustration once existed emerged a revitalized approach to the game he loves.

“I’m not mad at COVID. I’m glad it gave me a deeper appreciation for the game of basketball,” he said. “Now every time I step on the court, I feel blessed.”

The Guardsman