The kids grew up Friday night in Oak Park, benefitting greatly from the rigors of Metropolitan Conference basketball.
The Sacramento Dragons, a staple in regional high school basketball for decades, are a young lot anchored by a senior floor leader, and the latest test produced encouraging and rousing results.
Sacramento played hard, yet composed, behind a player who absolutely demands as much in toppling No. 3-ranked Burbank 61-56 in front of a raucous crowd at the historic Dave Hotell Pavilion to keep their faint championship hopes alive.
Sayvon Hines, he of the high-rise 'do and equally impressive jaw-line beard, ran the show at point guard. He's 5-foot-11 with the hair, but measures in enormous in heart and pride otherwise. An honors student with a 3.76 grade-point average, Hines is just as proud of his academic standing - and recent SAT and ACT score - as his own basketball numbers.
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He had 16 points and shook just as many hands after the game in a place the Dragons fondly refer to as "The Lair." Alums from this decade and from as far back as the 1950s hustled over to offer words of support to Hines, a fourth-year varsity player tasked with leading one of the youngest playoff groups in the Sac-Joaquin Section, one that has three freshmen and two sophomores in the rotation. And it was a team mature enough to halt the 12-game winning streak of the Titans.
"We're getting better every day, learning how to play," Hines said. "Big games here are fun. Since we had all of those seniors last year, it was a heavy load on me, and I wanted to show that we could still do good things and I wanted to show what I could do."
What he does is compete and contribute for Earl Allen, the Dragons' beloved head coach whose task was no less daunting than that of his star player. Allen, a longtime Sacramento assistant, took over the head role departed by the program's all-time winningest coach, Derek Swafford, who attended the game and beamed like a proud papa bear.
Allen told his team in the dressing room after the contest that all he wants is effort. The Dragons gave him that. Sacramento was mowed under by the Titans earlier this season, 89-67.
"We were completely overwhelmed in that game," Allen said. "We've come a long way. We knew it'd be a challenge this season. We had to be realistic but still hold our expectations. We've been up and down, up and down, but the kids were great. They're replacing eight seniors, seven of them playing in college."
Among the departures were The Sacramento Bee Player of the Year Solomon Young, who played a big role last Saturday in Iowa State's upset win at Kansas, and Bee All-Metro guard Christian Terrell, now playing at UC Santa Barbara. Sacramento went 30-2 last season and was top-ranked by The Bee much of the season with the best team in program history.
Hines has kept the Dragons relevant, and he's mentoring players who were once like him: freshmen navigating their way through all of this.
Freshman Miles Lewis had 11 points, including three free throws down the stretch to ice it. Sacramento also received good games from Darryl Heidelberg, Jabari Sweet and Izayah Talmadge. The bench was engaged and enthused, matching the coaching staff. The game was an example of spirited rivals who played with sportsmanship and class.
Sacramento (16-10, 11-2) can win its 13th Metro title in 14 years if it beats McClatchy in a regular-season finale on Wednesday and if Burbank (23-3, 12-1) falls to Kennedy.