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For Serra, Success Comes in Three : Front Line of Boyd, Tate and Jackson Leads Cavaliers Into IV-A Title Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Akeli Jackson hurried into Serra High’s gym Wednesday with a bashful smile and fresh, bright red lipstick on his right cheek. He was holding a love letter.

“See, that’s the type of stuff you get when you win,” Serra teammate Arthur Tate said.

But the only date the Cavaliers (21-7) are worried about is the one they have with Verbum Dei (22-4) in the Southern Section Division IV-A championship game at 7:30 tonight at El Camino College.

The Cavaliers are coming off a 77-57 semifinal victory over Santa Clara of Oxnard on Tuesday, their 13th in a row. They were led by their senior front line of Jackson, Tate and Michael Boyd.

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Jackson, a 6-foot-8 center, had 14 points and 14 rebounds. Tate, a 6-6 power forward, had 22 points and 10 rebounds. And Boyd, a 6-5 small forward, had 20 points and eight rebounds.

As impressive as those numbers are, they’re nothing out of the ordinary.

Jackson, Tate and Boyd are each averaging double figures in points and rebounds, led by Jackson’s 24.2 and 14.3 averages, respectively.

“People think it would be a problem with three guys that can score on one team,” Boyd said. “But we know each other. Like with Santa Clara, the team was smaller than us and we knew we could beat them down low, so it wasn’t a night for me to go out and try and shoot three’s (pointers). It was a night to beat them inside and go to these guys. Whatever it takes to win.”

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Serra Coach Dwan Hurt says this attitude is shared by his entire front line.

“They understand their role on the team,” said Hurt, who is in his fifth year as Cavalier coach. “That’s why we’ve been successful.”

Success hasn’t always found a home at Serra. Two seasons ago, the Cavaliers were 6-18 with Jackson, Tate and Boyd all starting as sophomores. Hurt knew things would turn around, eventually.

“We had kids that left the school because they didn’t want to put in the time and effort to work on the fundamentals of the game,” said Hurt, 29. “I believe in building a strong foundation in order to have something to stand on. Now, when I see these kids go out and play, I don’t tell them much. I sit back and relax because they have the strong foundation.”

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And they have talent. Jackson will play for Cal State Long Beach next season. Tate has signed a letter of intent with Sacramento State and Boyd said he is being recruited by Division I schools.

They won’t play together next season for the first time since the eighth grade, when they first teamed up on a traveling squad. In the last five years, they feel they have meshed as a unit.

“We operate well on the floor,” Tate said. “The three of us together (have) a chemistry. Since we’ve been playing so long, we know how to mix it up together.”

Hurt, who teaches physical education and interpersonal ethics--"it deals with a little bit of religion and moral decision making,” he said--has made sure his players don’t get mixed up in the wrong crowd off the court. Boyd and Tate live in South-Central Los Angeles, Jackson in Ladera Heights.

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“There’s so much negative stuff out there in the streets that this is the only real positive environment besides their homes,” said Hurt, a former Serra basketball standout who graduated in 1981 and grew up in South-Central. “We try to spend as much time as possible with each other. We eat together. We have retreats together. We talk out our problems. We try to mold the team and get a good feel of who you are and knowing that next person.

“Before and after practice we’ll get together and hug each other and get in a group. We lift each other up. You know, some people walk in and they’re not really into it, not ready to go. But just by a little hug that gets you going and lets you know somebody really cares about you.”

It seems everybody is starting to care about these guys. On Wednesday, the day after Serra’s victory over Santa Clara, the players began to feel like celebrities on campus.

“Everybody was offering me things they wouldn’t before,” Tate said. “Like usually, if I needed a piece of gum from my friend out on the yard, I would have to ask him or get it myself. But (Wednesday) it was like: ‘Art, you need a piece of gum? You need a dollar? You need change to get anything?’ ”

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Said Boyd: “People that don’t normally talk to you seem to go out of their way to say something to you. When we were 6-18 our sophomore year, nobody cared about us at all. We’d walk around school like regular students.”

After starting the season 8-7, it appeared Serra might be a regular team. But the losses came against powerhouses such as Morningside (twice), Artesia, Westchester and Huntington Beach. Hurt said the players benefited from the fierce competition.

Those benefits were obvious to St. Genevieve Coach Dan Donovan, whose team plays in the Camino Real League with Serra, which won the title with a 10-0 record.

“They were men against boys against anyone in our league,” said Donovan, whose team lost twice to the Cavaliers by 35 and 32 points.

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Donovan was particularly impressed by Jackson’s play.

“He’s very agile and strong and he’s got great moves,” he said. “Tate, Boyd and Jackson are all complete. They have inside and outside games.”

Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich, the third-winningest coach in state history with 701 career victories, said it will take a strong and quick team to beat Serra.

“If you have those kind of ballplayers, you’ll give them a game,” Cvijanovich said. “If you don’t, you’re in trouble.”

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The Cavaliers reached the Division IV-A championship game last season before losing to Crossroads of Santa Monica. With another year of experience, the front line agrees that this is their year.

“When we’re on the team bus, I just take a look at our team,” Tate said. “I look at Akeli and Mike and I just feel like, man, we’ve got a lot of talent. We’ll go out and play hard and we’ll come out successful.”

One thing is certain. In the eyes of an admiring classmate, Jackson is already a success.


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