CALEXICO HIGH — As courtside announcer for the Calexico High School boys’ varsity basketball team for the past 14 years, John Moreno knows the difference between happenstance and hard work.
“This team had all of the
right elements to win the championship,” Moreno said recently. “It was a
The 13-member 2020 CIF-San Diego Section Division IV champions, the first-ever CIF championship squad in the school’s 118-year history, “tired out” opponents, had “guts” to drive to the basket, and “they had good basketball IQ as a team,” Moreno said.
The Bulldogs took home
the title with a 70-57 win over El Capitan in San Diego on Feb. 28.
“You didn’t see them get
frustrated or down” in game-time settings, he added.
Off the court, the Aurora
High School principal explained the team had respect for each other and their coaches,
worked hard in the classroom, and built a bond with each other that was central
Calexico High School
Principal Gabrielle Williams-Ballesteros could see it, even though she’ll admit
to not knowing much about sports.
“They could communicate
without even trying to communicate,” she said. “This bond, this family bond,
was clearly visible on the court.”
By all accounts, this was
no Cinderella squad and no chance creation. It was a carefully crafted team in
which many moving parts came together at the right time, under the right
leadership, with the right group of young men leading the way, head coach Hugo
Estrada said of how the championship season came to be.
Who Are the Bulldogs?
For the core of the team this
journey to a championship season started on neighborhood basketball courts and
in grade-school recreation leagues where some had been playing together from as
young as 5 years old.
The result this year was
a 27-4 overall record, a 5-1 Imperial Valley League mark, and the number-one
seed going into the CIF-San Diego Section tournament.
Bulldogs would go on to make a first-round exit from the CIF state tournament, losing
81-65 to San Diego’s University City on March 3, but the team brought glory to
Calexico and made its mark in the record books.
The best a Bulldogs boys’
varsity squad had ever done in CIF was a third-place sectional finish in 1963,
Moreno said, and the team hadn’t won a league championship since 1996.
“It was a really good
experience to come together with a great group of guys and make history and
create a culture in Calexico,” said 17-year-old Derek Lopez, one of the team’s
three senior captains. “It was amazing to see the community come together and
support us all season.
“All the work paid off to
be able to bring that championship back to Calexico,” the starting forward
Making the Team
“This is a group of very
unselfish individuals. Everybody understood their role. One of the things that
we tried to display every time we played was our energy,” said Estrada, a
second-year head coach who has been involved with coaching some level of the
school’s basketball program for eight years.
It was “non-negotiable”
that the team would “play harder and show more effort than their opponents,
especially on the defensive end of the floor,” he added.
On offense, it was “smart
decisions and be patient” with the ball and “these are probably our trademarks
as a team,” Estrada said.
“Our team is not a big
team, our biggest is 6-2. We knew we weren’t the most athletic. We needed to be
smarter, take care of the ball, teams had to play at our pace,” he added.
championship process started with the coaches.
a 2000 Calexico High graduate, played on the varsity team under his
now-assistant head coach, Juan Rodriguez, and then played two years at Imperial
Valley College before embarking on a five-year professional basketball career
with Soles De Mexicali.
Estrada said, he played with and learned from NBA players and great coaches.
he put his own coaching staff together, they attended coaching clinics to hone
skills and become better organized.
wanted to build a new culture on the team” that was going to revolve around “a
good family environment” and “group bond” among players, he explained.
and his staff decided early on that a year-round approach and getting lots of
games under their belt was going to be required.
The staff knew it was halfway
there with the core makeup of the squad, Estrada said. The players who had been
grade-school friends and teammates–Lopez, Mathew Piña, Fabian Reyna, Armando
Ramirez, Emmanuel Serrano and Luis Gastelum–had been playing for the Calexico
High program since they were freshmen.
“Our boys really listened
to what the coaching staff had to say, they believed in our program,” the coach
The squad would spend
many hours together, playing numerous games and in tournaments starting last
spring, including 25 games over the summer, around the region and in Mexicali,
“I can’t say enough about
this group of kids. They really made the effort and believed in this team. …
They sacrificed a lot in practice and in games,” the head coach explained.
“Resilient. Respectful. They shook my hand and the coaches’ hands at the
beginning and end of every practice.”
What the Champs Have to
The players agreed hard
work and a strong bond were integral to success.
“The season, honestly,
was amazing. Everybody had each other’s backs … we had faith in our teammates,
and no one had to do all the work,” said Piña, 18, a senior captain and guard.
Bonding as a family was
“pretty natural,” he said, adding the teammates were always together on and off
the court. He said winning was an extension of that.
“It’s very surreal,” Piña
said of being CIF champions. “We’ve all been talking about it since we were
Senior captain and guard
Reyna, 18, said as a freshman he told his coaches, “My senior year, we will win
the CIF title … and to actually go out and do it was an amazing thing.
“This whole season would
not have been possible without my family, my parents, my coaches, but most
importantly, my teammates, and I will be forever thankful for a memorable
season,” Reyna added.
“It was a very great
season. I’m going to miss it. We were a very good family, like brothers …
Hopefully we made the city of Calexico proud,” Piña said.
“We were brothers on that
court, not just teammates,” Reyna said.
“I’m thankful for
everyone that made our senior year so special,” Lopez added.
The younger players, who
will return to defend the title next season, already know what to expect.
“We’re all going to be
working hard and see where that takes us next year. For now, us returners, we
know what it takes to get there. We’re only going to work harder,” said
sophomore guard Aaron Tabarez, 16.
“I want to thank my
teammates, a great group of guys with great chemistry. And our coaches, they
taught us not just about basketball, but about life, too,” Tabarez added.
Help from the ‘Sixth Man’
Community support was one
of the intangibles that factored heavily into the Bulldogs’ championship run,
“Parents, staff, they all
deserve credit for supporting us,” he said, adding the community support “was
really something special.”
During pivotal games at
home and on visiting courts throughout the Imperial Valley to San Diego,
Estrada said Calexico’s ardent fan base filled gymnasiums. He recalled when the
IV League title came down to the final league game of the season at Southwest
High in El Centro “there was so much garnet (school color) in the stands … They
were louder, too.”
The community support
“made the games feel even more exciting. It took the pressure off the games and
made us feel like we were playing at home. It made us want to go out and put on
a show for the Valley,” Lopez said.
“It feels good to
represent the city of Calexico. They supported us all season. It just feels
great,” Tabarez added.