Gavilan College men’s basketball players coped with more tragedy last season than many teams ever have to face.
“The fact that we even had a season was remarkable,” Rams coach Tito Addison said.
Gavilan opted to play the season after freshman guard Andrel Gaines died Nov. 18, 2011 – 12 days after he suffered severe head trauma from a car accident on U.S. Highway 101 south of San Francisco.
Teammates Billy Heard and Davontea Johnson also were in the car, but survived their injuries from the crash that killed the 19-year-old Gaines. The other man involved, San Jose resident Dennis Leffew, was charged with vehicular manslaughter, but later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for driving under the influence.
Family and friends around the Rams rallied to support the team, but the depleted roster struggled to a 1-23 record, including an 0-12 mark in Coast Conference play.
“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Addison said of coaching last season. “There were talks of not having a season, but I’m glad we did.”
Addison said the tragedy provided perspective to players.
“It helped them understand things aren’t that bad. No matter how their day or practice is going, skill-wise or mentally, things can’t be that bad,” he said.
The Rams have risen from the abyss, using a 2-2 start this season to surpass last year’s win total and provide the new year with hope.
“It’s pretty good because we’re already done with our season total from last year, with one win,” Rams sophomore guard Scott Taylor said. “But it’s still kind of disappointing; we felt like the first two games that we played we should have won, so we really feel like we should be 4-0 right now.
“I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied being 2-2, but we’re happy we’re winning games this year.”
Taylor, a former Sobrato High star, has been a key component in the Rams’ success. The sharpshooter made 5 of 9 3-pointers through four games.
He’s part of a deep and talented backcourt that has ignited the Rams, who won 57-48 at Merced on Nov. 14 and beat visiting Skyline 63-57 on Nov. 21.
Freshman point guard Joel Sales is the team’s leading scorer through four contests at 12.2 points per game.
“I like to create for my teammates and create open shots for myself later in the game,” Sales said. “I try to get my big men going and our best shooters going. If they’re hitting shots, that just creates better shots for me, so that’s how I go about it.”
Another source of perimeter shooting has been sophomore guard Matt Johnson, who is 7-for-19 on 3-pointers.
“Our backcourt has always been a strength, but this year we have experience,” Addison said.
Although the Rams once again are undersized, Addison credited freshman forward Derrick Fox, who averages six rebounds per game, with providing a post presence.
Gavilan is at the Monterey Peninsula College Tournament this weekend. The Rams’ next home game is Dec. 20 against College of the Redwoods, and the Coast Conference opener is Jan. 9 at MPC.
“I see a lot of progress, so that’s definitely a positive thing, but I know that the competition out there is very high,” Sales said. “I feel like we still have a lot to work on as a program.”
The Rams have designs on being more competitive this season, and they’re putting together the formula inside Bud Ottmar Memorial Gymnasium when no fans are watching. When Addison barks directions about setting screens with a sense of urgency, players show they are listening the next time down the court.
“We have a lot of guys who are talented who compete, and playing time is determined off who’s working hardest in practice,” Taylor said. “We have very competitive practices.”
Playing in the Coast Conference South Division is no easy task, Addison said. Among the division favorites is Cabrillo, which rattled off a 22-3 record last season.
“I’ll tell you, it’s like the NFC East for basketball,” Addison said. “Every game is brutal. There’s no letdown. It’s a very talented, very well coached conference, and it’s a great experience to be in a conference like this.”