The official roster height for Stephen Thompson never varied from 6 fee, 4 inches.
Through Crenshaw High School, four standout years at Syracuse University, a pro career and now as a coach, he’s never been near that height, and it’s never mattered.
A legendary leaper, Thompson always played at a much higher level than his personal tale of the tape, and in nine years as the coach at Cal State Los Angeles he’s done everything possible to get the same effort from his teams.
That’s one barrier Cal State Stanislaus will be up against as it attempts to win a game in the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s postseason tournament for the first time in school history. The Warriors and Golden Eagles open this year’s CCAA Tournament on Thursday at noon at Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena.
The standout attribute of this year’s Cal State L.A. team is a relentless game in the paint at both ends. Mirroring the former on-court intensity of their coach, the Golden Eagles lead the CCAA in blocked shots and offensive rebounds.
“They have a very deep front line,” Stanislaus coach Larry Reynolds said. “They keep running guys out there who are 6-7 and 6-8, and we don’t have that luxury.”
The Warriors went 18-8 in the regular season to match their highest win total since becoming a Division II scholarship program, and their 14-8 mark and fourth-place finish are the best since joining the CCAA in 1998. Stanislaus split its two games with fifth-place CSLA (15-11, 12-10) with each team winning on its home court.
The difference in the games is clear. In Turlock on Jan. 10, Warriors center Marcus Bell went off for 22 points and 18 rebounds as Stanislaus rolled 66-49 to hand the Golden Eagles their first conference loss. In the rematch in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, the Enochs graduate had eight points and 11 rebounds before fouling out and CSLA won 62-59.
“Bell’s a very good player, and you just have to play your game and try to limit him as much as you can,” Thompson said Monday. “We were fortunate playing him down here in that he got into foul trouble. I don’t know that it was anything we did, but it did help us. He’s a tough matchup and a tough player, and good players like that find a way to make it happen.”
Bell is a top candidate for the CCAA Player of the Year, an honor that will be announced Wednesday night, but the Warriors have developed sufficient depth to help overcome foul trouble for any of their players and survive the conference’s rough back-to-back game schedule.
“The biggest improvement on our team is that we’ve learned how to play in close games and on back-to-back nights,” Reynolds said. “You’re not only playing on Fridays and Saturdays, but they’re almost always completely different games. You have to learn how to play when your legs aren’t fresh, but you still have to find a way to win those games. We have. We’ve been able to string victories together when we’ve been tired.”
Fatigue could make the CCAA tourney an ultimate challenge for the Warriors. Thursday’s winner would have to turn around and meet regular-season champion Cal State San Bernardino at noon Friday for the right to play Saturday at 5:05 p.m. for the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament.
If experience as a player can help a coach prepare his team for such a grind, then Thompson has it, having played for legendary high school coach Willie West at Crenshaw, winning a state title his senior year. He was a three-year starter at forward for Syracuse, where as a freshman he played in all 38 games, advancing to the 1987 NCAA title game where Jim Boeheim’s Orange lost to Indiana on Keith Smart’s baseline jumper.
“What I learned from Coach Boeheim was to let the players play,” Thompson said. “They’re the ones who are between those lines, and we as coaches have to put them into position to use their skill sets. Boeheim has been very good at that – putting kids in situations to let them shine best, and taking individual skill talents and blending them into a team.”