What a turnaround the Palisades High boys’ basketball team has made in the last three weeks.
Since losing 11 of their first 12 games, the Dolphins have won seven of eight and, remarkably, are playing their way into contention for the City Open Division playoffs under interim coach LeBre Merritt.
“I told the guys that opponents are going to look at our record and underestimate us so it’s our job to make them pay,” said Merritt, who was an assistant for the girls’ team before stepping in to coach the boys one game into the season. “We embraced the underdog role and are playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
The Dolphins will not be overlooked anymore after Friday’s 48-44 upset at Western League front-runner Westchester — only their second win in 56 league meetings with the Comets since 1997.
“I’m not thinking about the playoffs or seedings or any of that,” said Merritt, the point guard and captain of Palisades’ varsity in 2008-09. “Our goal from day one was to win league and it’s still the goal. My message all along has been this: If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else believe in us?”
A cloud of suspicion hung over the program when nine high-profile players transferred to the school in a span of six weeks over the summer but by the time the season started all but three had either been denied eligibility or left campus. Another senior quit the team after the season began.
Juniors Muhammed Butler from IMG Academy and Eli Levi from Santa Monica suited up for the first game while the other remaining transfer, Devin Carey from Loyola, has a broke finger and has yet to play.
Previous coach Donzell Hayes and his staff were asked to step away from the program a day before the season opener Nov. 13 and athletic director Rocky Montz served as acting coach in a 49-point defeat to Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. Blowout losses to Southern Section powerhouses Harvard-Westlake and Corona Centennial followed.
Merritt opted to pull his team out of the Maranatha tournament, forfeiting a game but giving the Dolphins a much-needed week of practice to regroup and build chemistry.
The turning point came, of all places, in the last game of The Classic at Damien on Dec. 30, when the Dolphins nearly blew a 15-point lead with six minutes left but held on to beat San Marin 61-59 to take 15th place in the Silver Division. Since then, the Dolphins’ only setback came at the hands of Village Christian, a top 25 Southern Section Division 1 school.
“That was a true test of character [against San Marin] because we’d had a meltdown against Paraclete the night before,” Merritt said. “We were able to stick together and find a way. It’s just what we needed at that time.”
It took awhile for the Dolphins to adjust to the new roster and a new coach.
“We were just sick of losing honestly,” said junior forward Aten Hassan, who had nine points in Saturday’s 56-49 intersectional victory over Agoura. “All of the problems at the beginning left us in the dark, everyone was against us and there was a lot finger pointing, but we realized we only had each other. Once we started playing for each other not ourselves things changed.”
Palisades has climbed the ladder in the Western League standings and sits one game behind co-leaders Venice and Westchester. The Dolphins (8-12, 5-2) host Venice (12-8, 6-1) Wednesday in a pivotal matchup and will travel to LACES on Jan. 29 to face a dangerous Unicorns squad that was missing two starters when it lost by three points at Palisades on Jan. 10.
“We have something to prove every time we step on the court,” said Butler, who scored a team-high 10 points in the rematch with Westchester, which beat the Dolphins by nine Dec. 4 before Palisades had found its mojo. “Coach came in showing great leadership and we’re buying in.”