After every victory, Horizon Christian Academy’s boys basketball team has one word to say before breaking the huddle.
“We congratulate each other on a nice win and then we say ‘but’ before breaking the huddle,” Horizon coach Tyrone Hopkins said. “Nice to get the win, ‘but’ this one isn’t our goal.”
Well, the “but” game is finally here for the Panthers.
At noon Friday, Horizon plays the game the Panthers have dreamed about all season when they face Northern California champion Alameda St. Joseph Notre Dame in the Division V state championship game at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
“I’m still excited about this and it’s been a few days,” senior Markel Byrd said. “It’s only taken four years to get here and I know a lot of people are surprised we’re here, but we’re not.”
Said senior Cody Underwood: “It feels like a really long season already, but this has got to be one of the biggest moments of my life. Coach told us to treat this like a business trip. I’m not going to drive 10 hours up there just to lose.”
Horizon (20-11) has been on a roll since the return of the school’s football players. The Panthers have gone 14-3 since becoming the team everyone anticipated. One victory in particular stands out.
As expected, the Panthers opened the season 1-6. They were just 6-8 heading to Hoover to play the Cardinals in the annual Martin Luther King Classic, still waiting for all of their football players to round into basketball shape.
Horizon’s season has not been the same since surprising the eventual San Diego Section Division II champions with a 91-90 victory as Darren Carrington hit a game-winning layup before the final buzzer.
“That game sharpened their focus,” Hopkins said. “They’ve never lacked for confidence, but beating Hoover told them they could play with any team in the state. They walked out of that gym a completely different team.
“If you had told me before that game that we’d be in the state finals, I would have laughed right in your face, but these guys want to play the last game possible and they are.
“These guys just like to play the game. They start practice 15 minutes before the start of practice. I have to chase about 11 of the 15 kids out of the gym at night.”
Horizon fancies itself as a true contender no matter what the taller St. Joseph Notre Dame (25-11) team tries to do in the finals.
The Panthers’ résumé includes a string of games — mostly losses — against quality opponents. Horizon lost its opener to Mission Hills, the section’s Division I champion that features 7-footer Kameron Rooks, the section Player of the Year; the next game to St. Augustine, the Division III champion with a pair of all-section guards in Brynton Lemar and Trey Kell; and a pair of games to Division IV champion Army-Navy, which had a pair of all-section performers in 7-foot-1 center Cheikh N’diaye and point guard Devin Watson.
Horizon — which won Division IV state titles in 2002, ’03 and ’06 — punched its ticket to this year’s finals with a 54-36 win Saturday over San Gabriel Academy.
“We’ve faced big teams, fast teams, teams that can shoot,” Underwood said. “We don’t care what they do.
“Once the wheels got rolling here, things have gone our way. We started knocking down shots and playing tough defense.
“I was in sixth grade when I sat in front of the TV and watched Horizon win a state title the last time. I remember saying I hope I can be there one day. It’s a Cinderella story, playing my last high school game in the state finals.”
Underwood’s dream, along with the Panthers and their eight seniors, has come true.