De Guzman plays through pain

When the Renaissance Academy boys' basketball team captured its first CIF championship on March 3, players jumped into each other's arms, a few tears flowed and emotions ran high.

None of which is an uncommon sight when a team reaches its ultimate goal together after months of striving, but for Wildcats senior guard Vince De Guzman, the moment carried an extra poignant touch of bittersweet sentiment.

"It felt amazing capturing a CIF title. It feels good just winning it, not only for the team, but for my dad's memory," says De Guzman, who lost his father Napoleon De Guzman to a heart attack over the summer. "I kind of broke down right after that final buzzer. I hugged [Wildcats assistant coach] Niko [Fontanilla], who's been right there by my side through everything and after the game I was with my mom. It was just an emotional day after the game."

From the beginning, Renaissance dedicated its season to Napoleon, who for years was an invaluable coach and mentor to the entire Wildcats family and, to Vince, a beloved father who was taken from him far too soon.

"[Napoleon De Guzman's] done a lot for everybody on the team," says senior point guard Troy Fontanilla, who's been close friends with Vince De Guzman since the two began attending Wildcats Coach Sid Cooke's basketball clinics several years ago. "It hasn't left our memories and we just want to keep that in mind when we're winning games and going through hard times."

De Guzman won't soon forget the flood of emotions that accompanied the Wildcats' 67-45 win over California Lutheran at Mater Dei High in the CIF Southern Section Division 6 championship game and its aftermath.

But he's hardly had a chance to digest it all yet, as the triumph was followed immediately by a run in the CIF State Division V tournament, which continues Saturday with a Southern California Regional Championship game against Village Christian at Ontario's Colony High.

The season that serves to honor Napoleon just keeps on going and now the Wildcats have a new goal in mind when they break every pre-game huddle with a hearty chant of his name.

"Our main goal is just to win the state championship," De Guzman says. "We know we can win it. We're just ready to win state."

It wasn't always easy for De Guzman to envision the current high the Wildcats were on when he rejoined the team with a heavy heart. At the time of his father's death, De Guzman, who attended Renaissance as a freshman and sophomore, was still enrolled at Monrovia, a byproduct of a move during his junior year forced by job changes and medical problems within his family.

Soon after, De Guzman moved back in with his grandfather, who had by that time recovered from his own health issues, and he was reunited with the group he considered his extended family at Renaissance.

Playing basketball for the Wildcats this season has been instrumental for De Guzman in coping with a family tragedy, but Cooke initially noticed the toll the loss of his father had taken on De Guzman.

"The first month, he lost weight, he wasn't eating and you could see it took him a long time to get back," says Cooke, who says Napoleon, who would eventually join the Wildcats coaching staff, became one of his closest friends after Napoleon began bringing Vince to his camps over eight years ago. "It was a burden on Vince and his mom and his brothers. Now because we are so close [as a team], we feel like a family around him."

The camaraderie and support Vince De Guzman found waiting for him on the Wildcats helped him cope with the pain and once the season got underway, he had basketball to immerse himself in.

"It's definitely been hard for him, but basketball is our sanctuary and everything just gets better when you're on the court," Troy Fontanilla says. "Just being there for him, I think, it's been a big help for him and the whole team, we're all like a brotherhood and we're all looking after each other. We're always there for Vince."

And during the Wildcats' 27-6 season that may yet build upon the program's milestone CIF title, De Guzman has been there consistently for his teammates, as well.

"When we need a rebound, he'll be there, when we need a loose ball he'll dive on the floor and get it, when we need to settle down he's there and when we need big baskets he's there," Cooke says. "I don't think he's had too many bad games this year, especially against tough competition. He's stepped up."

De Guzman averaged 14.1 points per game during the regular season, during which he's had plenty of big games, such as a 24-point performance against El Camino Real on Feb. 4 and 36 points in a win over Village Christian on Nov. 30, 2011 and he's stepped it up over the course of the Wildcats' sectional and state runs.

De Guzman averaged 22 points per game in the sectional playoffs, according to Cooke, and scored 24 in the semifinals against L.A. Adventist before dropping 18 on Cal Lutheran in the finals. In Tuesday's win in the SoCal semifinals over Ribet, a team which defeated the Wildcats during the season, De Guzman scored 18 points to pace a 75-59 win.

"I know I have to pick it up for my team to have a chance," De Guzman says. "My coaches are putting me in the right position to score the ball and sometimes my team just needs that extra scoring in the game."

Should the Wildcats find themselves in the midst of another on-court celebration to end the season, there will undoubtedly be joy for De Guzman, but also heartache, as the two conflicting emotions have often been inseparable in a season where the success inspired by his father's memory often serves as the most vivid reminder of his absence.

"I'm so happy that we did [win CIF], but then I look at Vince and when we won that thing, he was crying and I know why he was crying," Niko Fontanilla says. "Because he did it for his dad and his dad wasn't there to see it. It's melancholy for him and as happy as I was for him to do it, I was crying just along with him. It's bittersweet."

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