The scoreboard read 35-9. Lake Balboa Birmingham, considered the preseason favorite to win the City Section Open Division basketball championship, had struck rock bottom. The Patriots were getting embarrassed by Woodland Hills Taft during a West Valley League game last month.
“I was like, ‘Oh wow,’” All-City forward Corey Cofield said.
They’d go on to lose 72-53 on Jan. 13, their sixth consecutive defeat.
Birmingham was 0-2 in the West Valley League and people were thinking that the Patriots wouldn’t qualify for the Open Division playoffs.
“They seemed like they were in a bad place,” Taft coach Derrick Taylor said. “Every team bottoms out at some point in a season. They didn’t play with the spirit they normally play with.”
The next day, before practice, coach Nick Halic issued a blunt warning: “We’re out and your playoffs start now.”
Birmingham (18-7) hasn’t lost since ending their losing streak after that mandate, going on a nine-game winning streak as the Patriots prepare to enter the Open Division playoffs at home Thursday night against Gardena.
Call it the reincarnation of the Birmingham Patriots.
“What’s changed was their understanding they have to do it together,” Halic said. “Once they understood they needed each other, we started playing better.”
The trouble began after Birmingham played one of its best games in a loss to Chatsworth Sierra Canyon at the Damien Classic. The Patriots took the lead in the second quarter against the No. 1-ranked team in the state.
Afterward, players were excited after seeing highlights on Instagram and Twitter.
“I felt all the social media attention got to us,” David Elliott said.
Said Halic: “It was this weird fog after the Sierra Canyon game. We played pretty well. James Nobles got hurt and we stopped playing like ourselves and started playing for exposure in a way. Even though you say, ’Hey, it’s not going to work,’ they’re kids and at the end of the day, they had to figure it out on their own.”
Individuals tried to step up in games, but that only made things worse. They were trying to win by themselves instead of as a team. Halic noticed that his players were giving out only six to seven assists in 32 minutes, a sign of big trouble.
The Taft game got everyone’s attention. It was so frustrating that senior forward Elisha Cofield was ejected after picking up his second technical.
“I thought we were in a little trouble, to be honest,” Halic said.
One positive was that Nobles, a junior wing, was almost ready to return from a knee injury sustained early in league play. He’s a steady, intelligent team player who brought back a sense of stability. Junior guard Elliott started scoring off of passes instead of relying on dribbling to score. The team assists reached double figures.
Two weeks later, Birmingham defeated Taft 79-66. Taylor noticed a change.
“Their energy was totally different,” he said.
It was another example of the challenges coaches face.
“I think people don’t understand coaching is hard,” Halic said. “You’re coaching kids and these kids might have things going on at home.”
The Patriots were able to regroup to earn the No. 4 seed for the Open Division playoffs and are again in contention for the City title.
“You have to look into the mirror, ‘What can we do differently?’” Halic said. “If we pass the ball and share the ball and get double-digit assists, we’re probably scoring more and playing better.”