Standing in the shadows of a rusty basketball post at Back Bay High School, Coach Marc Katz has some encouraging words for a team that could sure use them.
"Keep your head in the game," Katz says in a low-key tone more suited for the library than for a basketball court. "When we're there, we're unbeatable."
Back Bay's 15-member squad is traveling to Fullerton College today to play Chino Hills for the Southern California title in the National Junior Basketball League, which comprises private and alternative schools and athletic clubs.
All week, the Bombers have practiced their strategy against a full-court press, and come game time Chino Hills will sense their energy, their enthusiasm and their mission.
What their opponents won't feel is the shock, anger and sadness that the team has grappled with in the past month.
Two weeks ago, Dylan Urquiza, the "poetic" member of the team, was shot to death while walking to a relative's house from a fast-food restaurant. Police said Urquiza was mistaken for a gang member.
Then on Monday, a player's father died of a heart attack. Jim Seaton, a 16-year-old forward on the team, missed most of the practice sessions last week to mourn.
But instead of caving into the grief, the team seems to have turned sorrow into a collective strength that outweighs all of them as individuals.
"It has turned the kids inside-out, or more appropriately, outside-in," said Jo Black-Jacob, the school's drama teacher. The deaths "have really brought them together as a team. . . . God works in mysterious ways sometimes."
Throughout Friday's practice, the players yelled out, "Win this one for Dylan!" or "Let's do it for Jim!" between layups and no-look passes, as if mere exhortations could perfect skills. On Sunday, the players will wear Urquiza's No. 50 on their sleeves to commemorate their beloved teammate.
Katz can only admire his players.
They don't play on the championship level of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the athletic league to which most high schools belong.
Most high schools have paid coaches and an athletic budget. Back Bay's only coach is Katz, an economics teacher who volunteers his time to help train the players. While many high school teams get a chartered bus for their out-of-town championship games, Back Bay had problems borrowing a van for their trip.
In general, students who attend Back Bay and other alternative schools have had grade or behavior problems, are pregnant or on probation, or cannot attend other public schools "simply because they march to the beat of a different drum," Katz said. Although many drop out, some graduates have scored 1,500 points on the Scholastic Assessment Test and received scholarships to UC Berkeley, Stanford University and other prominent colleges.
Tony Roberts, a 6-foot-7 center who averages 25 points per game, helps support his family by working after school.
"He's just amazing. He's unstoppable," Katz said. "He has real basketball potential. But because he's not in a CIF school, nobody knows about him."
There's no college talent scouts watching their games, and the lack of steady funding presents constant problems.
On the first day of practice when the team was formed in November, most of the players didn't have proper sneakers.
"The first miracle was getting the money," Katz said. "Not only did we need money to be in the league, we needed to buy things like shoes."
The teenagers solicited sponsors and raised about $2,000 to pay for league memberships and equipment. After each game, players would take turns calling sponsors to update the team's progress.
One sponsor was so proud of the team that she rewarded the players with a pair of Disneyland tickets each.
When told of the gift, Cesar Munguia, a 17-year-old guard, smiled ear-to-ear and said: "I've never been to Disneyland."
Another player patted him on the shoulder, as if to congratulate Munguia.
Such camaraderie hasn't always been apparent. Players said they still remember the days when this wasn't much of a team.
There was the "me disease," as Katz refers to the players' attitude shortly after the team was formed. Three students had approached him to start one.
"Everybody was doing their own thing," Munguia said. "Whoever got the ball would just take it down the court and try to score. It was shoot first, pass last."
Games were missed. Most of the players have part-time jobs, so practice had to be juggled around work schedules. Even then, it was hard to get all the players together at the same practice, Katz said. Some would leave in the middle.
During games, trash talking was a constant problem.
Mike Sandoval, or "Sandy," got into a fight with an opponent and was barred from playing early in the season. As an English project, he wrote an appeal to the league, which reinstated him two weeks later.
Katz, who sprinkles his sentences with such words as "Machiavelli," to which his players usually respond with a confused look, began implementing new rules.
First, don't say anything at all if you're not saying anything that would benefit the team. Second, all players must stay in school. Third, academics always comes before basketball.
Richard Byrd, considered by his peers the star of the team, went from earning Ds and Fs to high Bs. Bryan Krueger has straight A's and plans to graduate this year. Other players followed suit, some bringing their homework to practice.
"They're meeting at each other's houses and helping each other with homework," Katz said. "They're the big men on campus now."
Byrd added, "It made everybody feel like something, you know?"
Katz said the team has brought its members and the school more than an extracurricular activity.
It has brought a sense of pride that shows its face in the stands and on the cement slab that is the school's basketball court, where students gather to watch practices daily. Katz has "many, many more requests to join the team" than positions available.
"I think in general, people in education tend to assume that kids who end up in the alternative school system don't need team sports, or can't handle it," he said. "Well, I think we've proven them wrong."