Banner year for Elsie Allen basketball?

Joe Hoeup drives the hoop against teammate Carlos Behena at Tuesday's practice at Elsie Allen High School. Credit: Kent Porter / Press Democrat

Joe Hoeup drives the hoop against teammate Carlos Behena at Tuesday’s practice at Elsie Allen High School.
Credit: Kent Porter / Press Democrat

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Walk into the gymnasium at Montgomery or Cardinal Newman or another of our sports-steeped high schools, and you will see triangular pennant after triangular pennant plastering the walls, the typeface evolving over time. They are tribute to the many league championships these programs have won over the years.

Elsie Allen? Well, let’s just say it’s easier to appreciate the paint job in that school’s gym.

Since Elsie Allen High School was established in southwest Santa Rosa in 1994, it has collected just two league banners — both by the boys track team, in 1998 and 1999, when the school was part of the North Bay League. The tally could be updated tonight. If the Elsie boys are able to win at Petaluma, they will run their record to 10-1 in the Sonoma County League (20-5 overall) and will claim at least a share of the SCL championship.

Elsie Allen has already established a program record with 19 wins this season. That accomplishment would pale next to a league title.

“It would mean a lot,” senior Jalen Busby said. “That’s been our goal the whole year, to win league. That’s all we’ve talked about. This school, we’re not really good at a lot of sports. But for basketball to be like that one consistent sport that competes, and can finally put a league championship up, would be nice for this school and the community.”

The Lobos’ season began with a serious injury to their best player, Joe Hoeup. That injury nearly derailed their goals, but ultimately made them a better team.

After going 39-7 in summer exhibitions, Elsie Allen knew it had the talent to contend in the SCL. Then Hoeup, who was named second-team All-Redwood Empire while averaging 17 points a game as a junior, broke his left ankle in the first scrimmage of the season.

The Lobos went 4-3 over their first seven games, doing little to prove they could thrive without their best player.

Elsie Allen had two returning All-SCL players besides Hoeup, in Busby and senior center Erik DeLeon. But neither had been asked to carry the scoring as juniors.

“Everything they did in our offense was off Joe,” Lott said. “It was like pick-and-rolls, and they’d get theirs off that. Or we’d run stuff where Joe was coming off screens and they’d flash if guys overplayed it. We didn’t have a lot of plays for Erik or Jalen.”

In the days leading up to a Dec. 17 game at Hercules, Lott challenged his players to step up and take control. Something clicked. Since then, the Lobos have lost just twice, close games against Deer Valley and Piner, the team chasing them in the home stretch of the SCL season.

By necessity, the Lobos diversified. Senior Bradley Greiner, always a shooting guard in the Elsie system, took over Hoeup’s role as point guard (mentored heavily by Hoeup). A couple of kids slated for supporting roles, junior Nickolas Hercules and senior Carlos Bahena, combined to fill Greiner’s old position.

Most important, Busby, long the team’s No. 2 scoring option and a close friend of Hoeup’s since middle school, became Elsie’s go-to scorer. He currently leads the SCL with 20.8 points per game, a figure boosted by Busby’s 42-point outburst in a crucial win at Piner on Jan. 30. That performance helped earn him recognition as Cal-Hi Sports’ NorCal Player of the Week.

Most impressive to Lott has been Busby’s poise in crunch time. The coach notes that the senior is hitting 85 percent of his free throws in the last two minutes of games, almost daring opponents to foul him. Busby went 8 for 8 at the end of a game against Sonoma Valley, 9 for 10 against Piner and 6 for 6 at Analy.

When Hoeup got hurt on Nov. 15, doctors told Lott he was likely to miss three months. Doing the math, the coach figured he might get Hoeup back mid-February, just as North Coast Section playoffs were beginning. Maybe his star could play a limited role in the postseason.

But true to form, Hoeup attacked his rehab with ferocity.

“I’ve coached here for eight years — this is my fourth year as the head coach,” Lott said. “We’ve had some pretty good kids here. I’ve never had a kid that works harder than that kid. You never want see a kid get hurt, but when he broke his ankle it shattered me.”

When Hoeup got into a walking boot back in December, he began showing up to practice and offering tips and encouragement. He was cleared to play before the Healdsburg game on Jan. 28, and has been working himself into shape, running before school to speed up the process. Hoeup figures he’s at about 80 percent of full capability.

“Starting to find my shot now,” he said. “My explosiveness is not there. I just had to add other things to my game, like upper-body strength.”

Hoeup’s return has given the Lobos a wealth of options. In effect, they now have two ball handlers and two top scorers. Elsie Allen has become a very difficult matchup.

As the wins have piled up, the school, the student body and the neighborhood have taken notice. Attendance at games has exploded over the past couple weeks. Monday, the electronic sign in front of the campus on Bellevue Avenue congratulated the team on a recent win over Analy, adding “Keep Going!!!”

“This side of town, the last three years, we’ve had two teachers die. We’ve had a teacher’s husband die. We had a kid shot by a cop,” Lott said. “There’s been nothing but negativity surrounding this school for the last couple years.”

Now the Lobos are offering something positive. A win in either of their final two regular-season games — at Petaluma tonight, home against Sonoma Valley on Friday — would guarantee a share of the SCL title; winning both would make Elsie Allen the outright league champion.

The Lobos aren’t taking anything for granted, but their chances of bringing home a title would appear to be pretty good. That would surely ignite a huge celebration at the school. In fact, if Elsie Allen were to end its 20-year wait for a boys basketball championship, the only Lobo with mixed feelings might be Lott.

He was talking to another coach recently, and the colleague asked him what it would be like to put a banner up. Lott told him it would be a sad moment.

Huh? The biggest accomplishment in Elsie Allen boys sports, a sad moment?

“And I said, ‘Well, that means it’s over,’ ” Lott recalled. “And I’ve enjoyed every moment of coaching this team this year. You know you’ve gotta get to the end. But I’m trying to live as much in the moment as I can. I want to extend this out as long as possible.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story failed to acknowledge the two league championships won by the Elsie Allen boys track team in the 1990s.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.