Not many basketball teams in California this season have played as demanding a schedule as
St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.)
— and it only gets harder from here for coach Derrick Taylor and his athletic squad.
Playing in the Trinity League, one of the strongest in the CIF Southern Section, is tough enough. But the Braves have also traveled to top-tier national tournaments in search of the best competition. In December they handed Blanche Ely (Pompano Beach, Fla.) its only defeat in the championship game of the Chick-Fil-A Classic in South Carolina and handily beat Nixa, the top team in Missouri, at the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in Springfield, Mo., two weeks ago.
Perhaps the Braves' most impressive result so far, though, was Saturday night's 67-64 victory over Loyola (Los Angeles), No. 5 in Southern Section Division I-AA and No. 7 in California, at the Fairfax State Preview Classic. St. John Bosco took a 12-point lead with four minutes left, then withstood a late Cubs rally.
"It seems like every game we play is against a good team, so that was just one more," senior guard Isaac Hamilton
said. "We take every opponent seriously -- we have to with the caliber of teams we're up against."
Ranked No. 1 in Southern Section Division III-A, No. 5 in the Southern Section and the state and No. 30 in the nation, St. John Bosco has played the top two teams in California already and will take on national No. 3 Long Beach Poly Saturday in the Nike Extravaganza.
Before that, however, is a Trinity League rematch against No. 1 Mater Dei (Santa Ana) on Wednesday, when the Braves will try to avenge their worst loss of the season -- a 12-point setback at home from Jan. 9.
"We can play with anybody, so we're looking forward to that opportunity," said Hamilton, who has signed with UTEP. "We were in the last game [with Mater Dei] even though they won it."
Hamilton and sophomore Tyler Dorsey
(who had a team-high 23 points against Loyola) make a formidable starting backcourt and junior Daniel Hamilton
, Isaac's younger brother, is a threat from long range and in the post. Sprinkle into the mix skilled forwards Darien Williams
, Devin Burleson
and Brian Nebo
and the Braves present matchup problems all over the floor.
One person who can attest to that is Bishop Montgomery (Torrance, Calif.) coach Doug Mitchell. The undefeated Knights, ranked second in the state behind Mater Dei, dealt St. John Bosco the third of its four losses but the nonleague game on Jan. 12 was close throughout.
"They're probably the best team we've played all season," Mitchell said. "They're better than they were last year and they beat us last year. They have talent and depth at every position... and that makes them extremely difficult to defend."
Last season, the Braves won 25 games and fell just two points short of reaching the Division III state finals in Taylor's first year. The strategy of testing his team early against elite opposition had proved successful at Taft (Woodland Hills), where Taylor paced the Toreadors to three Los Angeles City Section championships and 10 West Valley League titles in 11 seasons. So why should he change his philosophy at a private school?
"I enjoy the challenge," Taylor said of coaching in the hoops haven known as the CIF Southern Section. "You always want to see where you stack up with the best."
St. John Bosco has won four straight games since its 52-50 loss to Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.), the No. 2 team in Virginia behind Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.). The second of those wins was a 72-70 triumph at league rival Orange Lutheran (Calif.), ranked seventh in Southern Section Division I-AA and No. 22 in the state.
"That win was big because it's never easy to beat a good team twice," Daniel Hamilton said. "We'd played them a few weeks earlier and won more convincingly, so they were more determined the last time."
Shortly after Taylor arrived at St. John Bosco, the Hamilton brothers announced they were transferring from Crenshaw (Los Angeles), where Isaac was voted first team All-City (scoring almost 20 points per game) as a sophomore and Daniel came off the bench to average 10 points as a freshman.
"We can usually anticipate what the other's going to do," Daniel Hamilton said. "We know each others' game inside and out and that makes it fun to play with him."
If the Braves (17-4 overall, 6-1 in league) upset Mater Dei they will join the Monarchs atop the Trinity standings with two games left. Winning the program's first league title since 1995 would certainly be a feather in the cap, but whether or not that happens, the focus will soon shift to the postseason, where the Braves expect to make some noise.
Strangely, St. John Bosco has yet to face a school from its own playoff division. A potential threat lurking in Division III-A is Oak Park (Calif.), which edged the Braves 67-66 in the section semifinals last winter. The Eagles (21-3) are currently ranked third in III-A behind St. John Bosco and Chaminade (West Hills, Calif.) and could meet the Braves again in the semifinals or finals.
"We feel we can [win state]," Isaac Hamilton said. "We continue to grow as a team, we get better every game and we're playing more together. With our guards, our sixth man and our size we'll be real hard to beat in the playoffs."