The music blares before every practice, the hip-hop sounds of Big Boi’s Shutterbugg and Lil Wayne’s Duffle Bag Boy thumping off the Woodcreek High School gymnasium walls.
The players enjoy it. As they warm up by shooting jumpers and stretching, they do not talk. Why bother? The sound is so piercing you cannot hear the basketball bounce or the shoes squeak.
This is a deal between the Timberwolves and coach Paul Hayes. They give him every ounce of effort on the court, and the coach gives the players access to the speakers.
The arrangement has paid off handsomely for both parties.
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Behind crisp and intense practices, the Timberwolves are rolling to their own beat and tempo. They are the No. 1-ranked team in Northern California and top seed in the CIF Regional boys tournament on the strength of team play, a 6-foot-11 national recruit and a 16-game winning streak.
Woodcreek (29-2) is pounding its way toward history. It is extremely rare for a public school to be ranked No. 1 in a high-profile sport. How rare? A public school has never won a NorCal Open Division championship.
Not yet, anyway.
Woodcreek hosts Capital Christian on Friday night in the first round, and every player and coach on board expects to ride this train to Golden 1 Center on March 25 for the CIF State championships. Then they’ll really dance.
“It’s a special group – great kids on campus, in class, on the floor,” Hayes said. “We let them enjoy their music. Of course, we turn it off once practice starts, and then they get after it. OK, not sure if it’s music coming out of this thing.”
Hayes and longtime assistant Joe Mazzuca are old-school – graying, cheerful and forever fans of rock bands from their own prep days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Def Leppard and Van Halen. The coaches are wise enough not to play any of those oldies out of fear the Timberwolves would grind to a halt.
“Letting us play our music, that means the coaches are invested in us,” guard Jackson Hughes said. “We love them for that.”
And the coaches love the players for the way they’ve embrace old principles of the game: making the extra pass, hustling on defense, supporting one another.
And the team’s star player sets the tone.
Jordan Brown, a junior standing a hair under 7 feet, has every big-name college program clamoring for his skills after graduation in 2018. It’s easy to see why, considering he’s averaging 26.3 points and 15.8 rebounds a game. But as big as a star Brown has become, he’s still just one of the guys on the team.
“We’re enjoying the high school life,” Brown said. “We’re all one, together. We hang out in basketball and away from it. After the (Sac-Joaquin Section) championship game, we all hung out at (teammate) Kyle Kern’s house – eight of us in a hot tub.”
Still, this is not a one-man show. With Brown on the bench with foul trouble for much of the Division I title game against Sheldon, the Timberwolves refused to buckle. Hughes and backcourtmate Tyrell Roberts combined for 43 points, and reserve guard Delis Boggs-Smith hit a late 3-pointer, setting up Brown’s last-second heroics. As poised as he is talented, Brown calmly made two free throws with 0.1 seconds remaining for the 68-67 victory.
Hayes, elated, bear-hugged players on the bench. The players engaged in a victory huddle dance, though it was a bit disjointed.
“We were all hyped, of course, and not very coordinated,” Hughes said, laughing.
Laughter is common with this bunch – on campus, on bus trips, after practices, after big wins. The last reserve on the bench is deemed as important as any starter.
A team this united and talented can translate into championships, Woodcreek coaches say.
“They’re a fun bunch,” said Mazzuca, the assistant coach. “They’re always together. If you do well in school, in class, like these kids do, you’ll do well in sports. There’s a direct link. Learning here in basketball is easy for them because they do so well in class and because they want to succeed.”