The age-old playground game of “Horse” helped develop Capistrano Valley High School guard Tom Airey into the best three-point shooter in Orange County.
Airey, now a junior, began challenging his father as a fourth-grader, and two years later, he was routinely winning the game of shooting accuracy.
“I got a little frustrated when my dad beat me, but it also inspired me to play more and more,” Airey said.
So while friends played Little League baseball at Viejo Elementary School, Airey spent hours on the basketball court perfecting his shot.
“I’d open the snack bar for the Little League and see him over on the playground shooting,” Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight said. “We’d play all day, and after the last kid had bought a Coke and I was closing the snack bar, I’d look over and he’d still be shooting.
“Tom Airey is one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever seen. He deserves all the success he gets.”
Airey never attended a camp to learn the mechanics of shooting. Instead, he played imaginary games on the Viejo Elementary playground.
“I’d simulate games between Capistrano Valley and Mater Dei,” he said. “I’d have the ball and would always be down by two points in the final seconds. I’d be in three-point territory and take the final shot.”
These days, the long hours of practice are paying off. Airey has made 105 three-point shots this season.
Remarkably, Airey tied the school record of 86 three-pointers--set by Todd Marinovich--before Capistrano Valley had played its first South Coast League game. He was averaging 49% from behind the 19-foot 9-inch arch through the Cougars’ first 16 games.
Airey had a memorable night against San Francisco Riordan in the semifinals of the Orange Holiday Tournament, making 10 of 15 three-point attempts. John Curtin of Encino Crespi set the section record with 11 three-pointers in a game this season.
But lately, opposing defenses have keyed on Airey. He has made only 20 three-point shots in five league games.
“He’s definitely become a marked man in the league,” Capistrano Valley Coach Mark Thornton said. “I think the coaches in the league saw Mater Dei shut him down by switching every time he moved across the key, and they’ve picked that up. Everyone is doing their best to deny him the ball.”
Thornton said he employs two specific plays that allow Airey to attempt a three-point shot. He also devised set inbound plays from the baseline and sideline designed to get Airey a three-pointer.
“We try to get him 10 three-point attempts per game,” Thornton said. “If he gets squared up and faces the basket, the shot is going down.”
Airey benefits from the effective screens that teammate Steve Ransom sets for him that repeatedly allow him to get free at the top of the key.
“Steve sets the meanest picks on the team,” Airey said. “Jason McGee guards me in practice, and Jason is dead tired by the end of the day.”
Despite working hard to get free without the ball, Airey is finding it difficult to get open shots against defensive-minded teams.
“I’m going to have to create my shots,” he said. “Guys are pulling on my jersey. I’ve gotten bruises from being bumped so hard.”
Still, Airey continues to practice.
“I took Saturday off, but I was in the gym shooting on Sunday,” he said.
THREE SPIRITS All-time Southern Section season leaders in three-point shots made:
No. Name School Season 140 Steve Clover Rolling Hills 1989-90 125 Tracy Murray Glendora 1988-89 105 Tom Airey Capistrano Valley 1990-91 104 Steve Clover Rolling Hills 1988-89 103 Carlos Lopez Rosemead 1988-89