A smile spread across Saugus High boys basketball coach Bill Bedgood’s face as he listened, silently remaining out of sight.
The smirk had nothing to do with the 20 points per game forward Zach Phipps has averaged through the team’s first 14 games.
It wasn’t derived from the Centurions’ 10-4 record or No. 8 ranking in the latest CIF-Southern Section Division 2A poll, either.
No, it formed as Phipps addressed the Centurions before a preleague tournament game, talking about focus, mentality and strategy.
It was a mark of the next step in Phipps’ growth from stellar sophomore to senior leader of a Saugus team aiming for a Foothill League title, the path to which begins tonight at Hart at 6:30 p.m.
Last season, poor team chemistry sabotaged any hope of competing in league.
Teammates argued about playing time. Bedgood kicked players out of practice. Adversity was rarely met with a can-do attitude.
Something needed to be said.
But Phipps, on his way to first-team all-league honors, didn’t feel he was the one to say it.
Bedgood believes Phipps took a backseat to the team’s seniors, who, naturally, were expected to lead, even if they didn’t.
Phipps doesn’t let himself off the hook that easily, but he also isn’t dwelling on the saga.
“I could’ve stepped up and maybe said some stuff and maybe we would have been more together,” Phipps says. “That’s also last year. I can’t fix it now. I’m just excited for this year.”
This year Bedgood sat Phipps down in the preseason and told him he needed to play frontman for a chemistry revival. The infighting could not continue, and the team’s best player had to lead the way.
Phipps was up to the task.
Over the summer, he hosted teammates at his house after early morning workouts, hoping to build camaraderie through pancakes, swimming and shooting hoops — like a riff on a Julia Roberts movie: Eat. Play. Love.
Phipps did the cooking. And apparently the hotcakes hit the spot.
“They were fantastic,” says Saugus co-captain Micah Tobon.
Phipps, the other co-captain, hopes the ingredients in the Cents’ team chemistry turn out just as well.
So does Bedgood, who formed a bond with Phipps when the then-sophomore moved up to varsity for the 2014-2015 season, Bedgood’s first year at the helm.
“I feel like we’ve been doing this together. He’s been a huge part of our rebuilding of the program,” says Bedgood, who took the reins after the Cents went 0-10 in league in 2014. “He’s been there since day one, right by my side while we battle to get Saugus back to the top of the league.”
A surge to the peak of league didn’t happen that first season (a 3-7 finish in league), though Phipps earned All-Santa Clarita Valley honorable mention honors.
It didn’t happen last year, either, another 3-7 campaign in which Phipps averaged 17.5 points per game.
“We’re not going to be shy about it or afraid to say it,” Bedgood says. “We’re trying to win league.”
If that happens, Phipps will be the driving force.
At 6-foot-3, he’s apt at slicing through defenses to get to the rim, and his long-range proficiency has steadily improved.
Unsurprisingly, he models his game after Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, a former UCLA player known for banging in the post and launching treys.
“He’s getting closer and closer to being a complete player every day that he puts work in.”
Another model? Phipps’ mother, Shannon Phipps (Frowiss), who was an All-American at Santa Barbara High before starring at Pepperdine University, where she is 11th on the Waves’ all-time scoring list.
She led Pepperdine in scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons in the early 90s.
“My main game is inside,” Shannon told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I love to play inside. I like being physical and feel I’m as strong as anybody else.”
It’s a competitive flair she obviously passed on to Zach — who Bedgood describes as “probably the most competitive player I’ve coached” — as she taught him the game in the family’s backyard.
Zach, though, is still learning.
His most recent lesson: defense.
Over the summer, he played for the Pasadena-based Basketball Training Institute in tournaments in Massachusetts and Las Vegas. Often, he says, he had to pick up the other team’s point guard, forcing him to shuffle his feet a little faster, anticipate a little quicker, think smarter.
“He’s getting closer and closer to being a complete player every day that he puts work in,” Bedgood says.
The key this season, though, may be Phipps’ teammates and his relationship to them. He trusts the players around him more than ever. He no longer feels the need to do too much.
He can trust Anthony McIntyre to drive and score. He can feed the 6-4 Tobon in the post. He can kick to Luke Bodeau for 3-pointers.
All of it giving Bedgood plenty of reasons to smile.