The Atwater High Falcons have scored on a slam dunk exactly one time this season. Their tallest player checks in at only 6-foot-3. These birds fly closer to the ground than their record indicates.
Their record, you ask? Try 24-0. The 2022-23 Falcons set records each time they walk onto the floor.
“We took our lumps and changed the culture,” sixth-year head coach Kanoa Smith said this week. “We are an elevator-up program.”
Atwater may not pass the eye-test at first glance, but everything changes mere seconds after tipoff. The Falcons scrap on defense, dazzle with multiple options on offense and flash their signature unselfishness from start to finish.
To answer the standard question about Atwater – “Are they legit?” – here’s proof. The Falcons, 8-0 in the Central California Conference race, own wins over Valley Oak League-leading Manteca (19-4), Santa Cruz (18-3), and two victories over perennial power Central Catholic.
“We don’t have the same size, skill or athleticism as other teams,” said Colton Dukes, the player responsible for the solo throw-down. ”We like each other and play together. And that’s when we have the most fun, sharing the ball and playing fast.”
And when senior KJ Ross threw one in from the opposite free-throw line last week -- a deluxe triple from about 70 feet -- the vibe about this special team multiplied.
Five Falcons reached double figures during win No. 23, an 84-47 rout of Patterson on Monday night. The 6-1 Dukes averages a team-leading 17.9 points and 7.5 rebounds, and senior teammate Tyler Parr is close behind at 10.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
Dukes and Parr, both four-year varsity veterans, anchor a roster that has reshaped Atwater’s hoops fortunes. The duo, along with junior Khoi Nguyen, KJ Ross and senior Azim Muldrow, vowed before they enrolled to reverse the direction of a program that spun its wheels for too long.
The Falcons went 8-0 during the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, then shared the CCC title with Merced and El Capitan last season. That was Atwater’s first league title since – wait for it – 1979.
“It’s donning on a lot of people that something special is going on down the street,” Dukes said.
Smith coaches with the right mixture of appreciation for a team coming of age and an old-fashioned chip on his shoulder. To say he’s witnessed Atwater’s struggles is a major understatement. The 2007 Atwater graduate played on teams that won only nine games over two seasons.
He’s been involved in the program at various levels for 17 seasons. Before Duke, Parr and the rest arrived on campus, Atwater had enjoyed only one winning season since 2005.
“It was not pretty. I know 1-11. I’ve seen it all,” Smith said. “I’ve thrown out everything we used to do when I started as coach.”
Atwater’s improvement under Smith was painfully incremental – 10-17 in 2018, 9-18 in ’19 and 13-15 in ’20 before COVID further complicated matters. He reset the foundation by incorporating what he liked from programs he admired.
One of them was Beyer, the always hustling and well-prepared team coached by Kyle McKim. Smith approached Kim in November of 2018, minutes after his Falcons were humbled by the Patriots 81-19 and basically asked, “How do you do it?”
“I liked how they (Beyer) played with pace and how he (McKim) structures his practice. We shared film,” Smith said. “He told me it would take two or three years.”
McKim’s estimate has proven to be on the mark.
“The real work was all his (Smith’s),” McKim said. “I’m excited by how they did everything the right way and how they came through the tough times. It’s a testament to him.”
The Atwater turn-around was almost entirely home-grown. The only transfer, senior Jayden Hillyer from Buhach Colony, is the son of former Atwater coach Tony Hillyer. Jayden has provided a significant pop off the bench during the CCC games. His three triples broke open a game against El Capitan.
That the guts of this team decided to stay home was no accident.
“People were telling us when we were in eighth grade, ‘You need to play anywhere except Atwater,’” Dukes said. “Winning here was important to us. But I don’t think anyone thought we could go (24-0).”
Not surprisingly, the streak has resulted in large crowds at Atwater’s gym which was opened five years ago. The Falcons’ run, incidentally, broke the record set by the 1987 team which won its first 20. That team will be recognized Friday night, when Atwater returns to its original gym to welcome Central Valley.
Meanwhile, Dukes – the team’s best on-ball defender – has totaled 1,520 points to break the school’s career scoring record formerly held by assistant coach Ben Peterson.
Atwater’s goals each night are simple: Hold the opponent under 50 points (the Falcons yield about 46 points) and share the ball. Get this: For each night the Falcons make 25 shots, they average 17 assists. Smith’s biggest problem these days is keeping the concession stand stocked.
Keeping Atwater focused, however, won’t be hard.
“Even when we’re getting this kind of praise, I tell the kids about the target on their backs,” Smith said. “You have to remember, I came from 1-11.”