Raiders wrap up league title despite lengthy shooting slump
by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
When the Sonora boys’ basketball team escaped Buena Park with a four-point victory back on Jan. 22, Head Coach Mike Murphy was disappointed with his team’s effort.
The Raiders came out flat, did not shoot well and allowed plenty of offensive rebounds to the Coyotes.
Since then, the Raiders, who are 23-3 overall, still haven’t regained a shooter’s touch that was on display during the preseason, but the result of that game taught the team a lesson that it would carry into a Freeway League championship, which the team secured outright with a 58-41 win at La Habra, Tuesday night.
The Freeway League title is Sonora’s 12th championship in Mike Murphy’s 24-year tenure with the program.
“We’re really resilient and a lot of us have returned from last year, so we have a lot of experience,” said Adam Marlow, senior captain. “We haven’t shot well since that game and earlier in the year, we would rely on the outscoring opponents, but if we’re not making shots, we have to find another way to win and that started against Buena Park. We’ve just been finding ways to win.”
During the course of the season, the Raiders have benefitted from consistency with its starters.
Juniors Ben Rico and Josh Rodriguez provide big scoring, Steven Murphy is the big body down low and Marlow shuts down the opposition’s best player with his defense, while providing big baskets in the fourth quarter, along with Rico, during close games.
Second half adjustments have been a factor as well, which allowed the Raiders to wrap up the league title a game early this season.
“It’s a huge weight off our shoulders,” said Ben Rico, Sonora’s leading scorer. “We’re No. 3 in the county and we earned that spot, we don’t think anyone is better than us. We’re going out there with confidence and we go out ready to play, it motivates us.”
However, some of those traits have shifted over the past few weeks to accommodate for Sonora’s shooting slump.
One of the biggest shifts has been the additional use of Steven Murphy as an offensive weapon.
In two of the Raiders’ last four games, Murphy has led the team in scoring with 22 and 19 point efforts. The junior center sat out one of those games with the flu.
In addition, Sonora has received increased contributions from its bench, most notably from guards Christian Rhodes, Jason McClung and Nathan Mendrin.
Rhodes scored 10 points off the bench in the team’s two-point win at Sunny Hills earlier this year. Mendrin has helped recently with his rebounding.
“They’ve been huge, any high school team needs a bench and ours is so good in its preparation,” Mike Murphy said. “Christian has been our sixth man all year, Jason is one of the best athletes on our team. He’s going to really help us next year. Nathan is the same way, he’s helped us immensely down the stretch and we can put him anywhere. They’re all really bright kids.”
Coach Murphy added that his bench players have memorized the offensive tendencies of all league opponents and that their use of those tendencies in practice have greatly helped the starters for upcoming games.
But the biggest factor has been Sonora’s experience, which was one of the reasons the team was projected to contend for the Freeway League title this season.
Because of that experience and the bench players’ readiness to step in and contribute, the team that has shown itself to be so potent on offense has earned that Freeway League title in the midst of a cold streak.
“People don’t give this league enough credit. Buena Park is 0-8 and they’ve played us tough twice,” Mike Murphy said. “We’ve just been in this horrible shooting slump for six or seven games now. Every game that’s been close, they’ve just found a way to win it.”
The Raiders also earned the title with one game to spare, which means no added pressure for Sonora when it matches up with Sunny Hills at home, Thursday night.
But what makes the feat even sweeter for Sonora’s players was celebrating on its main rival’s home floor.
“It definitely means a little more winning it here at La Habra,” Rico said. “The atmosphere is great, the fans are great, I just love it.”
Sonora is currently on a 12-game win streak and hasn’t lost since Dec. 28, a tournament loss to Parker High of San Diego.
But even with the team’s current success, both Mike Murphy and the team believe that it hasn’t come close to peaking yet this season.
“We’ll still be motivated to play Sunny Hills, they’re a very good team,” Murphy said. “We’re not playing our best basketball, we can play much better basketball and I’m hoping that before it’s all over, we can play like we’re capable of playing.”
The Raiders finish up the regular season at home on Thursday before entering the playoffs as a possible No. 2 seed in Division 2A.
If their shooting touch returns, there’s the potential for a deep playoff run.
“We want to focus on defense first, we’re always working on defense,” Marlow said. “The rest will come together and we’re hoping it does soon because CIF [playoffs] are all that’s left, so hopefully those shots start falling.”