The pieces were always there. The talent was always there. But it took all the pads off, their season on its last legs, for the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers to reach their final form.
Suddenly, Bronny James is no longer a quiet, sometimes leading example Robin, but an extremely vocal, poised Batman. Suddenly, Noah Williams is no longer a big one with defensive promise and offensive question mark, but a dominant inner presence. Suddenly, these Trailblazers don’t roll over when challenged, but retaliate with vengeance.
In a 64-47 victory Saturday night over Bishop Montgomery to advance to the Division I regional finals, the Trailblazers looked like they had perfected their identity after their worst regular season and Southern Section Open performance during coach Andre Chevalier’s tenure .
They rotated vengefully, battling to keep the aggressive Knights off the glass, as James scored 16 points, Williams 15 and junior Osiris Nalls Jr. 14 in the win.
“We’re trying to get to the point where everyone is playing their best game in the same game,” Chevalier said.
This was high school basketball at its best, separated from Sierra Canyon’s usual air of big arenas and celebrity presence, just a small gym packed to near capacity and booming. Dudes ready to guard. Dudes ready to demolish. The last time these teams met in the Southern Section playoffs, Bishop Montgomery won by two points and a late scuffle sent three Trailblazers ejected.
So an hour before tip-off in the state’s Division I regional final, Trailblazers assistant coach Chris Howe examined a bustling Bishop Montgomery gym and noted that this game would simply be “ten feet and a cloud of dust.”
Could resonate a little better with an older generation, in an older ball style. That phrase was first coined by legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and describes a tough style of running with the ball. Ten feet a doll – and a cloud of dust.
The first quarter was three yards — rebound after rebound just for the chance to shoot a free throw — and a cloud of dust, bodies slamming against the hardwood. An early 19-8 Trailblazers lead was moot; in a sweltering gym and with athletes who didn’t quit, Bishop Montgomery would find his way back.
And after a swath of Williams underneath, the Knights’ 6-foot-tall Xavier Edmonds dribbled up, brutally chicken-wrapped Nalls with a dribble behind, and threw a thunderous lob.
It ignited a silent gym, the kind of game that could change momentum.
Maybe these Trailblazers would have folded if this was December. Or January. Even February.
But Williams quietly hit a top-of-the-break three the next trip down, and after snagging a rebound, James slid down and raised for a pull-up three.
Butter. Three-finger claw. And a shout out from James, who grew up in front of the fans in February and March, suddenly an emotional leader who is constantly giving directions to his teammates on the floor.
The shift in James’ mindset, Chevalier said, came after understanding how much teammates wanted his leadership — even if it expressed negativity.
“I think it will bode well for him,” Chevalier said Friday, “as he steps up to the next level.”
Sierra Canyon will play Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in the regional final on Tuesday. The Trailblazers went down 0-3 to the Knights this season. Notre Dame defeated Mater Dei 81-59 in the semifinals on Saturday.