Coach Builds Winning Team at HIU

CoachCzechinaction.jpgStory by Tim Tuttle/For --

Hope International University men’s basketball coach Bill Czech made incremental progress in the won-lost record in his opening three seasons, but he was steadily putting together the talent that has taken a great leap forward and become a nationally-ranked team in his fourth in 2012-13.

The Royals (23-6) were No. 18 in the latest NAIA Division I rating that came out on Feb. 19. Their highest spot was 12th in the final week of January.

It’s the first winning season for HIU, the 1,500-student Christian school located across the street from Cal State Fullerton, since it went 25-14 in 1994-95 It’s significant this team has done it against a higher level of competition in the NAIA, which it rejoined in 1997, and the Golden State Athletic Conference, where it began playing in 1999-00. The GSAC is one of the NAIA’s most competitive conferences and produced last year’s national champion, Concordia University in Irvine.

Czech, hired to his first head college coaching job in April, 2009 after 14 seasons at Fullerton High--where he won 219 games and three Freeway League championships--inherited a program that went 9-102 overall and were 4-76 in the GSAC in the previous four seasons.

Czech was able to recruit guards Kris Rosales and Jeremy Kilgore for his first season, forward Orlando Collins in his second, center Austin Sanford in his third and forward Garrett Neilan in his fourth. They’ve been the regular starting lineup, although Neilan recently missed four games with an ankle injury.

 Without much size—Sanford is the tallest at 6-foot-5—the Royals depend upon athletic and basketball ability. They have quickness, speed and jumping ability and defend by playing man-to-man.

“We have some hard-nosed guys who play with a chip in their shoulders,” Czech said. “They play together and they care for each other. They’re really driven young men who want to do well. We body-up defensively. We want to get out and pressure the ball and pressure the passing lanes.’

Rosales, a 6-footer from St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, has started all but two games in the past four seasons at point guard. He was a sleeper, overlooked because an injury slowed his effectiveness during his senior year in high school. He averages 13.1 points, second on the team, and leads the GSAC in assists at 4.2 per game. Rosales is also an outstanding defender with quick feet and hands.

“Kris is what makes us go on offense and defense,” Czech said. “He guards the other team’s point guard and does a great job. Quite frankly, he was kind of under recruited and we were blessed to get him here. He was available when I got the job and we went out to watch him and decided to bring him in for a workout. It was like, ‘We’ve got to have this guy.’ And we started watching him in fall practice and we were like, ‘wow, he’s a lot better than we thought.’

“Kris played his senior year, but he had a knee injury all year and he didn’t do all that well. When he played in the spring, he was still hobbled and didn’t look as good as he is and a lot of people passed on him that wish they had him now.”

 Kilgore plays the off or shooting guard and leads the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game. The 5-foot-11 junior from Corona’s Santiago High redshirted his first season and has started alongside Rosales in the backcourt for the past three.

“With Kris and Jeremy, we recruited them with the goal of we’re trying to build our program from the beginning and we want you to be our guys,” Czech said “And they bought into that and they had enough confidence in themselves. They wanted to come and build a program and they have.”

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Collins brings toughness and strength to the inside. He averages 12.8 points and shoots 56.1 percent from the field and is the GSAC’s second leading rebounder at 8.9 per game. He transferred into the program after his freshman season at San Bernardino Valley College.

“They were so deep at San Bernardino Valley that he didn’t get a lot of playing time,” Czech said. “He plays really, really hard. He’s a tweener, between a three (small forward) and a four (power forward). We just said, ‘We’re going to play you as a four and use you as a mismatch guy.’ He’s super tough and has a big, strong body and he uses it really well.”

Sanford, a sophomore center from Narbonne High in Carson, became a starter in his freshman season and averages 10.2 points (shooting 56.5 percent from the field) and 5.6 rebounds this season.

“Austin is another tough kid,” Czech said. “He’s kind of a tweener, not big enough to be a five (center) at (NCAA) D1 or D2. Their fives are bigger. So, he was under recruited. He’s a worker, he works all the time and he’s really, really improved, come a long way.”

The 6-foot-4 Neilan played at Downey High last season and started the initial 23 games this year before the ankle injury took him out. He was averaging over 10 points before limited playing time in the past two games reduced it to 9.4. Neilan also averages 4.6 rebounds per game.

“Garrett is really composed, poised and tough,” Czech said. “He’s the whole package he’s a great defender, extremely smart and he’s in the right spot at the right time all the time.”

Four of HIU’s starters average over 30 minutes per game. Before he got hurt, Neilan did, too, but a combined 16 minutes in the past two games reduced it to 28.6. The top reserves are 6-foot-2 Travis Damuth, 6-foot-5 Randall Guillory and 5-foot-9 Ryan Jocson.

The Royals were 21-2 and 6-1 in the GSAC with their only conference loss to No. 8-ranked Westmont before losing three straight, all without Neilan. They followed with wins on the road at Biola and Vanguard before losing 62-47 to San Diego Christian at their home court, Darling Pavilion, on Tuesday. Damuth started against San Diego Christian in place of Neilan, who is healing and expects to be about 85 percent for Saturday’s regular season finale at home against The Master’s.

HIU will have a home game in the GSAC Tournament on Thursday (Feb. 28). The Royals are tied for second place with Arizona Christian in the GSAC at 8-5. The highest seeded games will have home games for the semifinal round on March 2 and the GSAC championship game will be played March 5 at Concordia. The winner gets an automatic berth in the 32-team NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, Mo.

Czech believes the Royals will receive an invitation to Kansas City to play for the national championship regardless of the outcome of the tournament. History is on his side. The GSAC typically receives two or three invitations. It would be HIU’s first trip to the NAIA tournament, which has been held annually except for in 1944 since 1937.

“We deserve to be there and I believe we will be,” Czech said. “There are 32 teams and we’re ranked 18th.”

Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, it has been a remarkable turnaround for the Royals’ program. They were 12-16, 3-15 in the GSAC a year ago, 14-19, 4-16 in 2010-11 and 4-26, 0-20 in his first season of 2009-10.

“We’ve made a big jump,” Czech said. “We’re really happy with where we’ve gotten.’  

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