As the clock hits zero, the ball slices through the net. The crowd erupts.
But it isn’t the players who are the most excited. It isn’t the coaches, either, nor is it the fans who have shown up in droves this season.
It’s the bench.
Ever since a preseason matchup with San Antonio Sam Houston, Ranger basketball culture has begun a monumental shift. And that shift started with, believe it or not, the players at the end of the bench.
A typical high school bench consists of a collection of reserves silently griping about their lack of playing time. But the “Bench Mafia” is different
“It all started when us five members of the Bench Mafia started hyping our teammates up and talking trash to [opponents] during a game,” said Kylen Morton, a junior and member of the Bench Mafia. “We figured we weren’t going to play as much as we thought we would, so we decided to have as much fun as possible on the bench and [try] to have no regrets this year.”
The founding members – juniors Jalen Nutt, Morton and Tristan Ortiz, and seniors Sean Arington and Michael Freitas – have a goal of being the most impactful bench in district 26-6A. And, so far, it’s worked.
“We call it Bench Mafia because we’re the loudest and craziest bench in the district,” Ortiz said. “No matter if we’re losing or winning, we’re still gonna be loud and try to bring positive energy to the team.”
That energy has permeated past just the games and into the culture of the team, to the point where even former coaches have taken notice.
“[The culture has] changed a lot,” Ortiz said. “We have so much more confidence in the team, and we have fun now when we play. An old coach of ours, Coach Ortiz, said that we have a kind of swagger that no other SV team has had in awhile.”
Many old-school coaches would have a problem with any player being so vocal during games, especially if those players aren’t contributing on the court. But not head boys’ basketball coach Ike Thornton. In fact, he embraces it.
“They made up their minds coming into the season that they were gonna change the course of Smithson Valley basketball,” Thornton said. “[They are] guys who don’t have to have a big role on the team to feel important and to make an impact on the team. And I’ve talked about them before: Sean Arrington, Kylen Morton, Jalen Nutt. Those guys hardly play at all, and they’re our most important players on the team because of the spirit they bring to the team, and the energy that they bring to us.”
Thornton always uses slogans and themes to rally around at the outset of each season. This year’s theme? Winning time.
“There was a coach from Cal State Fullerton who… coined a phrase, ‘Championship Time,’” Thornton said. “He went back and looked at all these games that they lost, and they lost by a small margin… So he coined a phrase, ‘Championship Time.’ And in practice he pointed out this is Championship Time, we need to make championship plays. Well, we changed ours to be ‘Winning Time.’”
That winning mantra has carried the Rangers through a thrilling season to their first playoff berth in over a half-decade. But even when he could be heaping praise on his on-court stars, Thornton has always made sure the members of the Bench Mafia feel appreciated.
“After every game, Coach acknowledges that the bench is a factor in how we play,” Freitas said. “So it’s cool to get recognized, even though I don’t play. And [the coaches] all love the bench players, and the Bench Mafia itself.”
“Our coaches love it,” said Nutt, who, along with Arington, coined the “Bench Mafia” moniker.
But as beloved as their antics are now, the group faced some early backlash from a familiar face. After getting a little too rowdy in a game against San Antonio Churchill, Thornton had to tell the bench to calm down. The seemingly benign comment sparked a misunderstanding, and the two sides had to meet afterwards to discuss the issue.
“[During the] game at Churchill, they were standing up and cheering, and sometimes they would say things to the opponents,” Thornton said. “And I’m big on sportsmanship, and it was borderline good sport/bad sport. And [so] I told them to calm down. And they thought that I meant don’t be active and be the Bench Mafia. But I didn’t mean that.
“So we had a lack of understanding one another for the game, and we talked about it, and that’s another thing. They were able to tell me that… the words I used, that it affected them and their role on the team. So we had to clarify, no, I want you to do that, but these are the parameters.”
Like many creatives, the Bench Mafia flourished inside of their externally-created boundaries, establishing a culture of celebration and trust.
“The locker room has changed a lot,” Morton said. “Everyone is close and everyone has each other’s backs.”
That trust has fundamentally shifted the way the players look at not only the game of basketball, but each other.
“[In] years past it’s just been about the best player,” Freitas said. ”This year the whole mindset of each player has changed. This team isn’t like any of the teams I’ve seen for the past four years. We all push each other and we all have each other’s backs. The intensity in practice is definitely different than years past.”
And with that heightened intensity comes heightened expectations. The team qualified for its first playoff berth since 2014, and with a senior-heavy group – eight of 14 players are in their final high school season – the time to win is now. And they now have a shot to cement their legacy as the group that created, for the first time, a winning basketball culture at Smithson Valley.
“We talk about the back wall leading to the old gym,” Thornton said. “Where you walk out and [the mural] says ‘where it all began,’ and it has when winning started, back in ‘88, I believe it was ‘88 when they were one game from regionals.
“So we always shoot for, ‘what’s your legacy gonna be? Are you gonna be the group that puts Smithson Valley on the map?’ So that’s been my challenge to them [since] the beginning.
They’ve already made a sizable impact. Rowan Klein, an 8th grader and basketball player at Pieper Ranch Middle School, says that his class will “for sure” try to mimic the high school team’s culture.
But that’s the least of their worries right now. A matchup with Austin Anderson (24-10, 11-5) looms. Anderson won 81-78, in a preseason tournament back in November. Tuesday night at 7:30, the team will travel up to Canyon Lake High School to take another crack at knocking off the Trojans. The program is making their first appearance since 2014, when half its players were in elementary school. But they aren’t worried one bit.
“When we’re into the game and making an impact on the bench, it seems like it’s… 10 vs five,” Freitas said.
Despite not getting the playing time they want, the motley crew of manic hype men are doing their part. And this year, there’s a good chance they do what no Ranger team has done since the one immortalized on that mural: make a deep playoff run.
But no matter the outcome, this group has led the charge into a new era of Smithson Valley basketball. Into a new day. A new time.
This story was originally published on Valley Ventana on February 25, 2020.