This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 Harker Quarterly.
The 2014 Eagles varsity basketball squad made school history this winter, overcoming adversity and injuries to shock the league by becoming the first Harker boys team in any sport to reach the section finals. This is their tale.
With only three games left in the league season, Harker was staring down a potential under-.500 year. The team had lost all of its captains to injury at various points in the season and its final games were against top league teams, including two teams vying for first place. A few weeks later, the team had rewritten Harker’s record books. How did the Eagles pull it off?
When the season began, the Eagles looked like the championship squad it eventually would become. In scrimmages before the start of league play, the team faced off against teams it rarely plays, like powerhouses Gunn and Monta Vista. Harker ambushed Gunn 70-58, led by 16 points and eight rebounds from senior Will Deng and 15 points and seven rebounds from junior Eric Holt. Next, the team stunned Monta Vista, trumping them by 17 points on the back of Holt’s double-double, including a massive 19 rebounds. Harker was on a roll, and the whole team could feel it.
“Starting 2-0 with those as the two wins was very exciting,” coach Butch Keller reported months later. After a summer in which Harker had won the summer league and a fast start before the league season, Harker looked primed to go on a dynamic run.
In the very next game, the adversity began. Harker entered the Lynbrook Tournament and drew Homestead, another top team, in the first game. They were well on their way to handily defeating Homestead, giving them three wins against three powerhouses by at least 10 points each, when captain Holt, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, broke his thumb. Holt was to be out for six to eight weeks. In their next game, Harker was crushed by Mills. “They beat us pretty badly,” recounted Keller. “The loss of Eric threw us into a little tailspin.”
The Road Gets Tougher
After the Lynbrook Tournament, Harker’s next major preseason competition was the Monta Vista Tournament. The team had so far survived the injury to Holt, rattling off a series of wins against beatable teams. Now, in the first game of the tournament, Harker would play Bellarmine, a fearsome team it had never played – and the Eagles’ toughest challenge yet. That’s when, in the final practice before the game, Harker’s all-league starting point guard of the last three years, senior captain Johnny Hughes, rolled his ankle. Bellarmine crushed Harker. The Eagles rebounded in their next game, but lost a heartbreaker in the third game of the tournament by a single point on the last play before the buzzer. It was a rough way to end the preseason, and a tough loss line in the final tune-up before league play began. The road would only get more challenging, however; in the weekend before the very first league game – against Pinewood, the eventual champ – Hughes’ replacement, junior Nicholas Nyugen, hurt his back. Harker would enter league play down three players, including two captains.
Rough Losses and Setbacks
Harker would lose to Pinewood and then to Sacred Heart Prep, starting the league season in an early 0-2 hole. As the team adjusted to the injuries, it rallied off a few wins, then a skid of losses, including to teams it expected to beat. Slowly, Holt, Hughes and Nyugen came back from their injuries, but just as the team had learned to adjust to life without them, they now had to learn how to gel again with the newly restored lineup. “When players come back, you’ve already adjusted, and it takes another adjustment to get used to that,” said Keller. As the season drew to a close, Harker faced a sobering prospect: a best-case scenario fourth-place finish, and a worst-case scenario sixth-place finish. “We were pretty shot,” recalls Keller. “We might end up finishing under .500 for the season.”
That was when the Eagles found themselves with three games left – against three of the top teams in the league: Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart Prep and Pinewood.
The Final Three Games
There was great news, though. For the first time all season, Harker had its whole team back. Against Woodside, the Eagles played like a team rejuvenated, leaping out to a 20-point lead at halftime. That was when injury struck again. The team’s all-league first-team center, Deng, who according to Keller, “put the team on his shoulders” during the most challenging days of the season, tore his ACL. The Eagles had their team whole for only half a game.
Harker finished off its win against Woodside, but the next game would be one of their toughest of the season as the team faced Sacred Heart Prep, a first-place team with only one loss for the year. As Keller would later recall, “nobody remembered the last time Harker beat Sacred Heart.” Now, Harker was to play them without their center, who had started every game for the last two years and was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.
Deng’s replacement was senior Huck Vaughan, who would go on to have the game of his life in an upset that would shake the league and make the San Jose Mercury News. Vaughan would score 23 points, more than any other player in the game, to lead Harker to a 71-65 stunner and dash Sacred Heart’s hopes for a league title. Suddenly, something special was happening for Harker.
Going into the game, Sacred Heart was tied with Pinewood for the league lead, with each team having only lost once this season. The loss thrust Sacred Heart into second place, but if Harker beat Pinewood – which would have to be an upset as well – Sacred Heart would finish first and potentially play Pinewood for the championship. So Sacred Heart Prep traveled to watch Harker take on Pinewood, and see if maybe, just maybe, they would tie for first. Lo and behold, in the final game of the regular season, still without Deng, Harker entered the second half trailing 29-21, then roared back, outscoring Pinewood 30-16 in the second half and winning 51-45. Harker was on a phenomenal run, and the clubhouse could feel it. “When we walked into the locker room” during this stretch, Holt recalled, “everyone had a smile on their face.”
Now, the CCS seeders had some work to do: Pinewood and Sacred Heart Prep finished tied for first, but Harker was the only team to have beaten them both, and had just laid a beating on Priory. Suddenly, from staring down the barrel of an under-.500 year, Harker had earned a first-round bye.
Big Playoff Wins
Harker’s first playoff game was against Carmel High. Despite what the coach called an “awful matchup without Will,” the team, through sheer tenacity, won the game, catapulting it into the quarterfinals. Now, the boys would travel to Santa Cruz to play Soquel in the massive Kaiser Permanente Arena, home to the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA’s Developmental League.
Though Harker was the sixth seed and Soquel was the third, it was a sure bet that Soquel would not underestimate Harker as two years ago, a seventh-seeded Harker team had knocked out a second-seeded Soquel. Soquel’s star player now, a senior, was a sophomore when that happened and was not going to take Harker lightly.
Soquel jumped out early, building up a double-digit lead. That continued into the fourth quarter, which got off to a rough start for Harker. The coach called a timeout with just over six minutes to go and the team down a dozen points. The message was simple and stark: “You have been on an amazing run and nobody would blame you if it ended here, but I truly believe that we are the better team.” From that point on, Harker went on a 20-2 run, winning by nine. The arena went from rocking to so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Keller noted that that run, in that huge venue, was a highlight of his coaching career he will long remember.
Next up: The semifinals against Seaside, an athletic team with two Division 1 prospects and a deep bench. And while the players might not have underestimated Harker, Seaside’s fans sure did. Keller recalls a Seaside fan spotting two Harker fans in the stands and commending them for appearing while offering his condolences for the beating they were about to witness. “It’s so great of you to come out and support your team,” he is rumored to have said. “It’s going to be a tough afternoon. We’re probably going to score 100 points on you.” Famous last words, as the saying goes. Indeed, Seaside jumped on Harker hard, but just as they had all season, the Eagles rebounded, hitting 10 of 10 free throws down the stretch and winning by 10. The fan was stunned. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Keller recalls him lamenting.
The Season Ends
That game would mark the high point of Harker’s season. In their next game, despite a packed house of Eagles fans, Harker lost to Sacred Heart Prep. Harker had earned its first-ever trip to the section finals and traveled to play one last game, on the road, against the fourth-seeded team in all of Northern California, which it lost. However, the Eagles’ amazing run had rewritten the rules for Harker basketball. If the team, which has many of its players returning, makes it to the section finals again, it will do so with the experience of having already been there once.
For his part, Holt cites veteran leadership and a deep bench as one reason Harker excelled. “This was our first year of having mostly juniors and seniors on the team,” he says. “Their leadership really helped us battle through.” He saw that first-hand after his own injury. “A lot of my teammates were pretty depressed,” he recounted, “but they got over it pretty quickly, because they realized they had the ability to step up and play through it even without me, and I thought they played really well without me.” When pressed on who stepped up in his absence, Holt gives credit to the whole team, saying that “everyone, on every single night, had the ability to play really well,” whether it was junior Sriv Irrinki nailing a number of threes on a tough shooting night for the rest of the team, or senior Wei Wei Buchsteiner’s running up of 20 points.
Harker’s tenacity was particularly exemplified by Deng, who was knocked out late in the season and worked hard with the team’s trainer to finally be able to return for the very last game of the season, and the last of his Harker career, in the section finals. Many players off the bench had to step up from playing less than half the minutes of the game to playing nearly all of them. Throughout it all, one tough bunch of athletes weathered storm after crashing storm, stayed strong in the face of adversity and bonded to write a new page in Harker athletics history.