Unbeaten Yavneh boys search for state title

By Aaron Greenberg

Yavneh Academy’s boys’ basketball team entered the season with the highest of hopes, having come to the precipice of a title in 2017 before falling in double overtime of the TAPPS 3A championship game.
This season, Yavneh went 29-0 in the regular season before opening its playoff run Tuesday night (after press time) in the area round against Watauga Harvest Christian (12-13). That game was part of a home playoff doubleheader with the Yavneh girls team (17-11), which faced Amarillo Ascension (13-8).
The winner of the boys’ game will play the winner of Tuesday’s game between Willow Park Trinity Christian (20-8) and Midland Classical (15-16) Saturday night at a neutral site. The bracket could lead to a championship-game rematch of last year’s final against Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills (25-6).
“There’s an incredible amount of excitement in the community,” said Yavneh Athletic Director and Boys’ Coach David Zimmerman, who called the boys’ and girls’ playoff doubleheader a dream come true.
“It’s such an amazing experience, just being able to play back-to-back in the same gym. I just want to keep these moments in my mind forever. For the light to be shined on both teams, it’s so amazing for them.”
Led by the high-scoring trio of junior Ofek Reef (18.9 points per game) and seniors Griffin Levine (17.2) and Pierce Bell (12.7), the Bulldogs feature a deep bench and fast-paced approach. But as high as expectations were for his team this year, Zimmerman knew nothing was guaranteed.
“No doubt there could have been a drop-off, a loss of focus. We lost great players that led us, and three amazing captains.”
The approach to getting back to a title run has been about beating more than just the other team.
“Our whole focus has been ‘Get better every day.’ Can the Yavneh team that steps into the locker room be better every night, and beat the Yavneh team from the night before?” Zimmerman said.
“You take small steps that lead to bigger ones. The more you do that, next thing you know, you find yourself at 29-0 and getting ready to start your playoff run.”
After a while, that unblemished record makes it harder to keep focus.
“I think a message I’ve even had to tell myself this year and to get the kids to buy into, is to enjoy the journey a little bit. I’m as guilty as anybody, because it’s such a blur and has gone so fast,” Zimmerman said.
Nobody loses focus when they play Yavneh. That’s why even wins by large margins have been helpful, Zimmerman said.
“I actually look at it on the flip side. You’ve been playing playoff games for months. You have been circled, no one has overlooked you. They look at your ranking and think ‘I want to be the one.’ The guys have done a good job of not letting that affect them.”
One of the first close calls was a 71-63 victory against Sunset Nov. 21. The biggest challenges, though, came during the Weiner Memorial Tournament at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, which featured seven games over four days in late November and early December.
The first game was won, 46-39, and after two games with a little more breathing room, the Bulldogs edged Jerusalem-based Boyar, 37-36. After a seven-point win, Yavneh again beat Boyar, this time 60-44. The title was claimed in a 17-point win against Heschel.
“They had a lot of talent, a lot of size, probably the most we played against this year,” Zimmerman said of Boyar.
Yavneh opened district play with an 85-6 victory against Cristo Rey, and kept rolling. Although the closest league game was decided by 13 points (at Covenant Jan. 6), Zimmerman said the final scores were sometimes misleading. A game against Highlands was tied at halftime.
“I don’t think anyone on this team is believing we’ll just go through the playoffs and win every game by 15 points or more. I don’t think anyone’s preparing that way,” he said.
This was the sixth straight 20-win season, making it less of a surprise that the Bulldogs were able to stay strong after graduating Noah Rubinstein and Daniel Chernikov from a 31-4 squad.
In addition to their scoring abilities, Reef averaged 9.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.7 steals; Levine 3.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.4 steals; and Bell 5.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 steals. Levine has hit 43 three-pointers, and sophomore Tyler Winton added 31.
But opposing teams trying to focus on a handful of players will find themselves in trouble.
“My coaching philosophy is that you need depth,” Zimmerman said. “As great as it is for a team having two or three great players, you’ve got to have depth. You have to be able to put guys in there who can give these guys a break.”
This year, though, Zimmerman found himself with a bench full of players who could contribute much more than a breather for his starters. He limited most of his starters to 23 or 24 minutes per game so the backups could get serious game time. It also helps with their style.
“We’re very fast-paced. We put a lot of pressure on you, but we can play a number of different ways. In order to play the style we do play, you have to be in great shape,” he said.
“It’s hard for a team to dictate pace and tempo against us. Some teams are not going to change their style. They’ll say, ‘We’re going to run with them.’ Some run with us for a half. And we may have been in better shape, or locked down on defense.”
In terms of player leadership, Levine and senior Micah Romaner are captains.
“It’s not hard for guys to look up to Griffin because he’s a gym rat, one of the top players in the state, a captain for the USA team at the Maccabiah games. He’s a leader, but I think he leads far more in how he plays on the court,” Zimmerman said.
“The other captain, Micah, he’s more quiet, subtle, in a number of different ways, but he’s got this personality and seriousness to him, where if he calls the guys together, they’re going to listen to him. It’s an interesting combination.”
Harvest Christian defeated Dallas Lutheran 40-31 in the opening round. Dallas Lutheran lost to Yavneh by 19 and 20 points in district play. Yavneh beat the Saints in a game last year.
“They’re a much better team now. They’ve pretty much returned all their players and got better,” Zimmerman said. “I think they’re big, bigger than we are. Their coach is doing a really good job. This is not going to be an easy task.”
For updates on Yavneh’s playoff run, visit tjpnews.com and the TJP Facebook page.

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