Joe Davidson

Kenny and the jets: El Camino beats Johnson in D-III playoff opener behind leader Olsem

Kenny Olsem is the driving force behind the Eagles.
Kenny Olsem is the driving force behind the Eagles.

Kenny Olsem was ready for another round of high-fives, hugs and back slaps in a jubilant postgame locker room. And then another round for good measure.

One thing about winning is it becomes contagious and fun, and Olsem and his El Camino High School basketball running mates embrace the idea of making this a habit.

With balanced scoring and fierce defense in the fourth quarter, and with Olsem contributing key plays as he has all season, the Eagles dispatched the gritty and resurgent Johnson Warriors 73-65 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoff opener Wednesday night.

Olsem, a skilled and tough 6-foot-3 senior guard, led five Eagles in double figures with 17 points. He scored on jumpers, drives and putbacks, and he hustled like all of the Eagles on defense. Ben Khatirine scored 14, Robert Williams 12 and Sawyer Concklin and Anthony Escobar had 10 each for El Camino (20-8).

“We’ve been together four years, a lot of summers, and we’re close, together,” Olsem said of his crew. “Everyone knows their role. We’re all pieces of a puzzle.”

For Olsem, a key piece of his own body puzzle nearly derailed his season. Late in the Capital Athletic League campaign, Olsem’s left knee popped out, leaving him in acute agony. He had it popped back into place in the locker room, returned to action, and had it happen again.

Somehow, he missed only two games. He said the knee feels structurally fine.

“I was in the worst pain of my life, yelling, crying, and I thought for sure I tore ligaments and was done,” Olsem said. “I’m just glad to be out there with my teammates. I’m not ready for an MRI. I don’t want to be ruled out, but I’m OK.”

El Camino’s spirited effort in a game that was close until the Warriors went cold spoiled the first home playoff game for Johnson since 1992. That famed group led by guards Lloyd Hillmen and Damond Edwards charged to the D-I section finals. Hillman attended Wednesday’s game and acknowledged the efforts of El Camino, seeded ninth with a chance to really topple the field with a game at top-seeded Weston Ranch of Stockton on Friday.

Johnson (16-12) was led by Jacob Henry, who had 19 points, and Xavier “Zoo” Osby, who had 14. Osby, a terrific senior guard with skills, is the son of 1990s Kennedy star guard Russell Osby. Said the elder Osby on Wednesday night, beaming, “My son made us all proud.”

Pride is the theme for El Camino, too. The Eagles were a basketball power in the 1960s and ’70s and won section titles in 1989 and 2008. The 2008 team included Kyle Baxter, now an Eagles assistant coach and the son of the winningest girls coach in section history in Bill Baxter, who led the El Camino girls for decades and is now an assistant women’s coach at Sacramento State.

Will Olsem, older brother of Kenny, was a key player for the 2008 El Camino title team. Will was flanked in the stands Wednesday night by brothers and fellow El Camino graduates George and Eric. Will set Sonoma State three-point records, and Baxter played professionally overseas.

El Camino coach Tony Phulps is a 1999 Eagles graduate, who relied on sheer grit to make a roster. He’s been on the Eagles coaching staff since 2000 and took over as head coach in 2009. His loyalty is what binds powerhouse and proud schools such as this.

“I never left,” Phulps said with a laugh. “It’s the work ethic that I love about this team, and how they play together. We talk about controlling the controllable, and that includes effort, and we have that.”

El Camino athletic director Cici Downing Robinson is also of Eagles stock. She was a star basketball player for the powerhouse Eagles girls teams of the early 1990s. She raved about this team and the coach.

“If we could have an award for a coach who creates a great family culture, where every play matters, he’d get it,” she said. “In this day and age of everyone wanting to be recruited, coach Phulps leads this unselfish team. I’m very impressed.”

So is Olsem, the team leader.

“These are my best friends, and this is the best time of our lives,” Olsem said. “Someday, years from now, we’ll all get together around a dinner table and talk about this season.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD