First published in the Dec. 2 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
Time flies, and if one requires proof of this phenomenon, they need look no farther than San Marino High School’s varsity boys’ basketball team.
First, it feels as though just a few months have passed since the last hoops season. Secondly, it seems incomprehensible that head coach Mihail Papadopulos is entering his 13th season with the Titans.
The first of those two postulates is true, considering that San Marino played a basketball game just five months ago during a spring season that wandered into the month of June. In fact, the Titans played their final contest a day after the 2021 graduation ceremony and Grad Night due to delays caused by the pandemic.
There is still little that makes sense about the youthful Papadopulos’s 13th season at the helm.
“It has been fun,” said Papadopulos, offering more than a hint to explain his longevity. “Our first pre-season opponents — Hoover, Alhambra, Workman, Baldwin Park and San Gabriel — said that these were among the better teams that they have put on the floor in several years. And they have all been tough. Each team has its own ingredients and we have had to play very hard. I am happy for all of these games because they have all tested us.”
Like a distance race, it’s not how you start but how you finish and Papadopulos would love to wind up at the top of the Rio Hondo League heap for the first time in his career. Given the unique skill set of the 17 young men he has enlisted to do battle, a strong case could be made that 13 might indeed be Coach Pop’s lucky number.
“I really like this group,” Papadopulos said during a phone conversation earlier this week. “They are very competitive and have a grittiness that I like a lot. The players all like each other and work very well together. This is a continuation from the spring season’s team which really grew together as a team.”
Papadopulos understands the possible perils of keeping a large number of players on the roster and acknowledged that he reached out to associates for feedback on the matter before making his final decision.
“This will be a more collective approach,” he said. “We have a unique blend of talents, like interchangeable parts. Last year we had two seniors, Joey Fuerst and Sean O’Brien, who did the majority of the scoring. This season we will have a wider range of guys, four of five of them, who can score in double figures.”
Papadopulos also said he has several heart-to-heart conversations with players, during which he explained the raw mathematics of keeping a large roster.
“Everyone needed to understand that with more guys, there there aren’t a lot of minutes,” he said. “I told them that by staying around they would be truly putting the team first. And they still wanted to do it.”
Given his choice of methods to introduce his roster to the community, Papadopulos chose to begin with his three sophomores, specifically, forward Adrian Huang.
“Adrian is a very exciting player,” said Papadopulos. “He brings a lot of years of basketball experience to the team. Adrian is strong and has done a great job in the weight room building his body but he is still one of the best shooters on the team. He has a toughness and a great basketball IQ.”
In the early going, Huang has averaged over 13 points a game.
Point guard Bobby Reyes impressed his coach last year as a member of the league champion freshman squad.
“Bobby has a very high basketball IQ,” Papadopulos said. “He has a unique feel and vision out on the court, which makes him very special. Bobby also has a tremendous passing ability which is unique at the high school level, let alone for a sophomore. It’s nice to know that as a sophomore you can just give him the basketball. I have great confidence in him and he has great confidence in himself. Bobby is a little wizard and a great floor general. He will be an exciting player for us.”
Guard Jayden Tse is an all-around talent.
“It’s hard to describe him,” Papadopulos said. “Jayden has great shooting mechanics and loves to defend. He is one of our pit bulls on the floor. He loves to get after it and is ultra competitive. You don’t see young scorers putting in the effort defensively but Jayden plays exceptionally hard at both ends.”
Jaden Clarke, a transfer from Placentia’s El Dorado High School, leads off the juniors.
“Jaden is a really great kid,” Papadopulos said. “I was a little surprised when he asked if he could try out for the team. His athletic abilities are unbelievable. He is very hard-working and really wants to learn the game. He hasn’t played basketball for a couple years, but he is a thoughtful, hard-working kid. Jayden has unbelievable athletic ability and challenges offensive players through his aggressive defense. He is a perfect fit for our program.”
Junior center David Jiang picked up some important minutes as a sophomore.
“David is a mass of a person at six foot, five inches and about 230 pounds,” Papadopulos said. “He is a strong, athletic kid who is also learning how to move his body in a basketball manner. Once he figures it out with his strength, he will really make his mark on this program. David is working on the finesse part of his game and as he gets better, we will get better.”
Junior Truman Koch has moved into the starting lineup.
“He does a great job.” Said the coach. “Truman made himself into a varsity body as far as strength is concerned. He is a great learner, is very cerebral and has come along very well.
Along with those skills he is a great rebounder and defender. Truman is always trying to get better and always trying to learn. He is also a great little leader.”
Xavier Duong has been one of the pleasant surprises of the fall.
“I am excited about X,” said Papadopulos, referencing the guard’s nickname. “He has so much ability and he can do everything well. X made himself into a very strong player. I haven’t seen players change as quickly as he has. Earlier in the season, he completely changed his shooting form. His defense has improved. He will impact many of our games and is loved by everybody in the program.”
Miles Caldwell, a transfer from Loyola High in Los Angeles, leads off the seniors.
“It’s not every day you have a 6’5” kid walk up and ask if he can try out for the basketball team,” Papadopulos quipped of the big man. “This is his first year playing and he has been steadily improving every week. Miles stays after practice to put in some extra work and is looking better and better. He has been a fun addition, is accepting of his role on the team and is working vey hard.”
Waasif Mahmood is another senior enjoying his first year on the Titan varsity squad.
“Waasif has been a total surprise,” Papadopulos exclaimed. “I had a direct conversation with him that there weren’t many opportunities with so many players on the roster and he has been at every practice and game and been one of the most positive and hard-working guys. Waasif is a nice little shooter who fits in well on our team.”
Aidan Hoang is enjoying his first year at San Marino High School and was already named one of four captains.
“I had no idea that he was coming to San Marino until the fall,” said Papadopulos of Hoang, who came over from Temple City and was “instantly accepted” by his teammates. “He has quickness and savviness and a feel for the game and he also has a little chip on his shoulder. Everyday loves him. He is a nice little floor general and a well-rounded player.”
Senior guard Jacob Wang is a true student of the game of basketball.
“Jacob just loves the game,” Papadopulos said. “He is a basketball historian who loves to talk about the game. He also has a nice little shot and everybody loves having him on the team.”
Senior center Timothy Irie adds some toughness under the basket.
“Tim is a fun and hard-working kid who gives you everything he has,” Papadopulos said. “He sets great screens that open up a sea around defenders, which is a great advantage for us. Tim is also also a great rebounder who dives on the floor for the loose balls. He will do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Shooting guard Ryan Wong has been “a pleasant story for us,” according to Papadopulos. “He has really improved himself. I love that we can put him on the floor and he just does what we ask him to do. He is always in the right place, makes the right pass and is a great team player. We are always talking as a coaching staff about how we can take advantage of his versatility.”
Co-captain Mason Lo brings a
wealth of experience to the squad.
“Mason is one of the best shooters in our program,” Papadopulos said. “He brings a lot of stability to the floor. Mason has a positive spirit and does what we ask of him. He will play a huge role on this team.”
Senior co-captain Kyle Yu is one of the club’s physically strongest players who can defend against either a guard or a forward.
“Like Mason, Kyle is a super-nice kid who works really hard,” Papadopulos said. “He goes to the hoop strong and can really attack the basket. He plays his role and plays it really hard. Kyle is not fun to play against and doesn’t back down at all.”
Senior forward and co-captain Michael Azinge brings a varied skill set to the squad.
“Big Mike is a unique talent,” said Papadopulos. “He is an outstanding rebounder who has an uncanny ability to come up with the basketball. He defends hard, has longs arms that allow him to block shots and gets his hands on a lot of loose balls. We don’t ask him to do stuff; he just does it. He is a natural athlete who is always improving and refining his game.
Mike has a great motor, competitiveness and loves to compete. He can guard all five positions and at 6’4” that is pretty unique.”
Papadopulos added that Azinge’s defense and rebounding ability will be the Titans’ key to a winning season and will forge the team’s identity. They’ll need those skills as long as La Cañada is a member of the Rio Hondo League.
“The league still goes through La Cañada,” Papadopulos said of the perennial champions.
“They will always run their system.
“South Pasadena has more newcomers this season. They have done a makeover on their team that will be a challenge for everyone. Monrovia and Blair are also extra strong this season and Temple City always plays hard. This year will be a big challenge for us.”
A 5-0 start has buoyed spirits, but remember: It’s how you finish.