San Luis Obispo High School made the logical choice Friday night.
The Tigers decided that stopping Rick Swanwick was the way to beat Trabuco Hills and advance to the Southern Section 3-A boys’ basketball championship game.
It made perfect sense. After all, there was Swanwick, a 6-foot-10 center who has labled himself, “Death From Above.” And at 20 points and 13 rebounds per game, those words had some substance.
So, it was no great surprise that San Luis Obispo tried to double- and triple-team Swanwick at the start of the game.
That worked fine. Swanwick scored just two points in the first 5 minutes. However, the Tigers found themselves behind, 12-0, and were defeated, 65-52.
Death, this time, came from below.
Mustang guards Luis Arenado, Randy Kriech, Tim Manning and Chad Poulos combined for 28 points, most of which came in the first half.
“They wanted to key on me, so I just threw the ball outside,” said Swanwick, who finished with 17 points. “After the first quarter, I think they realized we were not a one-man team.”
Which is a mistake many teams have made this season.
The Mustangs, who play Corona del Mar Saturday in the 3-A title game, are in the midst of the most successful season in the school’s four-year history. They are Pacific Coast League champions and have won 16 of their past 17 games.
Swanwick has received most of the attention, on the court and off. But equally important has been a quartet of scrappy-go-lucky guards who make the Mustangs go, go, go.
Each brings a different look to Trabuco Hills’ three-guard offense. Arenado, the sixth man, is an up-tempo playmaker, Kriech a deadly shooter, Manning a tenacious defender and Poulos a steady leader.
“You take just one of those guys away from us and we’re a totally predictable team,” Trabuco Hills assistant coach Russ Boenker said.
Yet, as different they are, their talents overlap enough to make the chemistry just right.
“You’re dealing with four similar-type players, but each does something a little different from the other,” Coach Rainer Wulf said. “They’re all gym rats. They just love basketball.”
THE PACE MAKER
Arenado has crossed the line between flamboyant and erratic many times this season.
After transferring from Irvine during the summer, Arenado was asked to come off the bench to provide a spark to the Mustang attack. We he enters the game, the tempo takes an upward swing.
Wulf has watched, with a mixture of pleasure and pain.
“We were pressing full court against Woodbridge and Luis made three consecutive steals,” Wulf said. “Each time, his passes ended up in the first row. He threw two over his shoulder and one behind his back. It all happened so fast I went, ‘Great steal, oh no.’ ”
Yet, despite his hot-dog tendencies, Arenado lifts the Mustangs to another level.
“He’s so unpredictable that it drives me crazy sometimes, but the bottom line is he makes things happen,” Wulf said.
Arenado, a 6-2 senior, doesn’t know the method to his madness. But, often, he says it works.
“I think it really pumps up the crowd,” said Arenado, who is averaging nine points and six assists per game. “So, if the pass is there, I’ll do it. Of course, coach kind of grinds his teeth about it.”
With thin, bony arms, Kriech barely looks capable of lifting a basketball, let alone shooting one.
But Kriech is averaging 12 points and is shooting 40% from three-point land.
“Randy is a creator,” Wulf said. “He doesn’t have to be open to score. He’ll create his own shot.”
Kriech, a six-foot junior, possess good leaping ability, which allows him to get off shots against taller opponents.
Against Cypress in the Newport-Mesa tournament, the score was tied, 60-60, with 10 seconds left. Cypress missed a shot, Kriech grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the court and hit a baseline jump shot to win the game.
“There was a guy right in his face, but Randy just spun around and came up shooting,” Poulos said. “Playing him one on one is impossible. The boy can get off the ground.”
Manning got a late start this season, missing the first two weeks. He was starting defensive back on the Mustang football team, which won the Southern Section Division VIII championship.
His skills as a football player also make him a great defensive player in basketball. In the Mustang press, Manning, a six-foot junior, basically plays a defensive back, waiting to intercept the pass.
“Tim has superior athletic ability,” Wulf said. “He will get to balls that no one else has a chance at. And he usually ends up in the grandstands.”
Against Laguna Hills, the Mustangs were trailing by 11 when Manning tipped a pass, chased the ball down and threw it over his shoulder as he flew out of bounds. The ball went straight to Swanwick, who finished the play with a monster dunk.
Trabuco Hills rallied to win.
Manning, who averages 11 points a game, usually draws the other team’s best guard. And usually, that guard doesn’t look his best.
“I sometimes worry about him,” Wulf said. “He’s so driven on defense and expects so much of himself that he goes all out. In the fourth quarter of a game, he banged kneecaps with some guy and was barely able to walk off the court. We get him over to the bench and he’s telling me he wants to go back in. And we were ahead by 15 points.”
While Arenado gives the Mustangs wild, free-for-all play at the point, Poulos offers stability.
“Chad is a coach’s dream,” Wulf said. “He’s basically an extention of me on the court. He’ll even come to me and make suggestions. I’ve even seen him grab Rick and shake him when he’s done something wrong.”
As a point guard, he runs the offense with efficiency and is averaging five assists per game.
“I feel I’m the consistent one,” said Poulos, a 6-2 senior. “I think I’m very good at recognizing who’s hot and getting him the ball.”
But Poulos, who averages 10 points, can shoot when needed.
Against Laguna Hills Feb. 8, the Hawks decided to overplay Manning and Kriech, as well as Swanwick. Poulos responded by hitting five three-pointers.
“Chad always thought he was an assist man,” Wulf said. “Once we convinced him to shoot more, we became even more dangerous.”
At least once a game, Wulf uses all four guards at the same time, along with Swanwick.
“It’s my mayhem unit,” Wulf said.
With four guards on the court, Poulos is asked to guard the other team’s power forward and rebound. On offense he plays the high post and will step out to shoot three-pointers.
Against Savanna in the second round of the playoffs, Wulf sent the mayhem unit onto the floor for the last 3 minutes of the game. With the Mustangs ahead by a point, Poulos stepped back and drilled a three-pointer that clinched the victory.
“Coach will call a timeout, and tell us, ‘Four guards’ ” Manning said. “We love it. Get us out there and let us go.”