"Everyone wants to watch it, everyone wants to play it, and I certainly want to coach it." --Greg Lanthier
Vista High basketball coach
Basketball is supposed to be a big man's game, but it's not that way at Vista High School.
Here, it's a shooter's game, a chucker's dream, an opponent's nightmare.
Here, a band of thieves and shootists live by the three-point basket and the full-court press.
Here, with only two players on the team standing as tall as 6 feet 2, San Diego Section basketball has achieved new heights as "The Bomb Squad" gives new meaning to the term deep threat.
The maestro of the mayhem--much more organized than it appears--is Greg Lanthier, a veritable quote machine who talks as quickly as his players shoot. Open a notepad and he winds himself up.
The Panthers (15-9, 9-4) will finish second in the Palomar League, a conference with five teams in The Times' Top 10, and they are ranked fifth in the county. Those are big numbers for a school that hasn't won a league title since 1983 and whose program was 5-17, 2-10 when Lanthier took over three years ago.
The style has turned Vista into a predator. The opponent is forced to adjust, not vice versa. Night in and night out, the Panthers run their offense and their defense. They do what they want--always. They aren't always successful, but . . .
They have forced an average of 24 turnovers a game as they have surrendered only 12, and they average a section-best 82 points per game and are allowing 65.
Their philosophy is simple: When you're on, shoot. When you're off, shoot until you're on.
"People have a misconception about our system," Lanthier said. "To ask kids to make a decision at that fast a pace is more difficult than catch, look, pass. . . . I'm amazed at the quality of decisions they're making at that pace."
Mt. Carmel beat Vista earlier this season, 89-75, giving Coach John Marincovich a victory over his former player, Lanthier.
Marincovich said: "They play so doggone hard and frustrate you so much by causing turnovers, it was a 14-point game and it felt like a two-point game."
"That's why we're here," said Nils Michals, one of the 13 "guard types" on the team. "This is the way the game was meant to be played."
It's easy to see why the style has captured the imagination of the student body and the community. Vista surpassed its own section record with 18 three-point baskets against Hoover earlier this season. The Panthers have scored more than 25 points in an quarter 33 times and scored more than 30 points 11 times. They have held opponents to fewer than 10 points in a quarter 14 times.
Jason Barnes (122) and Michals (106) are ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, in section career three-point shots made. Vista has made nearly as many free throws (348 of 519) as opponents have attempted (246 of 392), has made 37% from the three-point line (245 of 663) and has shot 51% from the floor (445 of 869).
At a school whose tradition is rooted in football, the Booster Club and the ASB have given away 300 specially designed shirts to members of "The Bomb Squad," a cheering section that hangs a giant paw on the wall every time a Panther connects from long range. The Vista bleachers have been packed since they beat Poway to go 6-0 in league play. The shirts were given to the first 300 fans who attended three home games.
By the time Vista and top-ranked Torrey Pines met for the first time, the shirts were hot items, more than 200 fans were turned away at the door and the Panthers gave Torrey Pines--perhaps the county's tallest team--its toughest game of the year from a San Diego opponent. Torrey Pines won, 71-69.
The Vista side of the gym is now packed with Bomb Squaders--those with custom shirts and those without--at every home game.
"It's what high school should be about," Lanthier said. "It should be an event. Whether you're on the court or in the stands, you should be having fun."
Said Kyle Duport: "This is a once in a lifetime experience. If you're lucky."
Jason Barnes has been the focal point of the program since his sophomore season, when he averaged 16.8 points per game. As a junior, he upped it to 20.0. This year, he's averaging 18.9 points per game.
A natural right-hander, he's done it with a deformed right arm that is three inches shorter than the left, a wrist he can't turn inward and a hand in which the pinky and ring finger share the same knuckle. But he has overcome the handicap--if it can be called that--with an intensity that is unequaled on the basketball court.
Added Mike Vandling: "He is a great player and he is handicapped, but you wouldn't look at him like that. Growing up, other teams would think, 'Oh, this kid is crippled' and not play as tough against him. He would tear them up."
Barnes hasn't changed. He says his opponents do not like nor respect him.
"Because I play hard, I play rough," he said. "I don't think they like that. If there's a ball on the floor and I'm near it, I'm going to dive for it even if I take them out with it."
Barnes, a 6-foot guard, is Vista's first option in its offense. He is the inside force. If he can't take the ball to the basket, he kicks it out to one of three teammates moving into three-point position. Teams try to force him to the right, but it makes little difference. His preference is shooting the jumper while going to his right, anyway.
"Jason's greatest strength is his tremendous ability to get his shot off on balance," Lanthier said. "And I'll tell you why guys don't like him--because they're (ticked) off that they're getting beat by a one-armed crippled guy who's playing harder than they are.
"The players may not respect him, but the coaches do."
Most of the players are best friends who spend time together on and off the court. And when each steps on the floor, "T & C"--standing for "Togetherness and Confidence"--is written in ink on each player's hand.
The 13 players resemble a speech and debate squad more than basketball players. The team grade-point average is 3.8.
"I think they're more socially aware than most kids," Lanthier said. "They're a lot more socially aware than I was. They're concerned about the dolphins getting caught in tuna nets, acid rain, the Greenhouse Effect. They all recycle."
"You can't play this system without intelligent players," Michals said. "I don't think the average team could run the system we run. That's why we have the notebooks and study."
Study time. Every day before practice for at least 30 minutes, the players meet with Lanthier and go over scouting reports, offenses, defenses, questions, the quote of the day. The players are required to keep a journal, and they correspond with Lanthier through letter-writing.
"It's almost like being in class," Michals said.
The classroom approach is only one interesting facet of the Panther program. On Mondays, they carry bricks during workouts as a form of conditioning. They'll shoot 150 to 200 three-point shots a day. Lanthier figures each player shoots 5,000 three-pointers in a season in practice, and about 20,000 in the course of the year.
Dave Dillon is one of the six gym rats on the team--along with Barnes, Shane Jager, brothers George and Caleb Ashley and Raul Tovar--who has benefited in Vista's system when he probably would not even make the team at other schools.
"He was like a noodle, he was so weak," Lanthier said. "I told him, 'You may never play varsity basketball but you will always have an opportunity to be a part of our program because of your attitude.' That's why it's so great to see him succeed. He was given nothing."
Dillon, who is shooting 43% (39 of 91) from the three-point line this season: "I'm not that talented a player--I'm not very quick, my feet are pretty slow and I can't jump very high--but in Lanthier's system, all you've got to do is be able to run down the court, shoot the three-pointer and play a little defense. That's something you can work at every day to get better."
Even second-teamers such as Tovar, Dave Ptak and Jose Perez are indefatigable in practice.
"Coach told us four years ago (on the freshman team) that the difference between being a great team and a championship team is the guys who don't play," Dillon said. "Mike Vandling, he's been a three-year varsity player and he hardly plays at all, and he never complains. That's great to see."
Lanthier has a condo in Carlsbad. Living with him is his freshman coach, Kevin Murphy, who played with him at Mt. Carmel in 1980-81 and reached the section semifinals. Junior varsity Coach Jon Ekeroth, who played with Lanthier at Pt. Loma Nazarene College, recently married and moved out. The other roommate, Roger Otterson, treasurer of the Booster Club, works as a computer programmer for a firm founded by Lanthier's father, Butch, the team's scorekeeper.
"This is the way I wanted to play, the way I wanted to be coached," Lanthier said. "When the four of us go down to the beach to play four on four, this is the way we play.
"There are a lot of coaches that have a lot of control and win, but I'm not sure their players have as much fun. I would rather take no credit and have fun and win than take all the credit and hinder the players that I have and not turn them loose. I think high school sports, in general, are over-coached. They don't let the kids play enough."