Leaning against a wall in the Valencia boys basketball locker room Thursday, Chad Phillips suddenly lit up at the name Ben Grant.
“Thanks for bringing him up,” the Vikings coach told a visitor on the eve of the Vikings’ biggest game of the season.
Valencia will host Hart on Friday night, and Grant represents, in part, why the Vikings can share the Foothill League title with the Indians with a win.
Valencia entered the 2016-17 basketball season as a question mark, devoid of graduated stars Chibuzo Ikonte and Isaac Davis and, really, an identity.
The Vikings (14-11 overall, 6-3 in Foothill) have since morphed into arguably the Foothill’s most complete team, a squad with a big man, a point guard, several sharpshooters and a group of selfless role players, among them backup point guard Ben Grant.
“Ben is kind of like the spark plug,” Phillips said. “He’s a small, feisty, pesky guard who’s going to hit the big shot to keep us in a game.”
Another player in Grant’s mold is senior wing Kyler Motoyasu.
“He’s a guy who will score two points and get 10 rebounds, and all he’ll care about is the win,” said Zach Hawkins, the leader Valencia’s sharpshooters (a group that includes junior guard CJ Finley).
When on, Hawkins has been nearly unstoppable, e.g. seven 3-pointers each in wins over Canyon and West Ranch.
Valencia’s point guard is junior Dexter Akanno, capable of breaking down defenses with the dribble and pulling up for midrange jumpers.
The player, though, who really sets Valencia apart in terms of completeness is 6-foot-6 sophomore Jayden Trower, who Phillips said before the season may have the highest ceiling of anyone in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Trower has shown flashes of that potential offensively, and opponents have contently struggled to keep him off the offensive glass.
At the other end of the floor, Trower swats and changes shots. He blocked league Player of the Year candidate Whitten Dominguez, of Hart, three times on one possession on Jan. 24.
“He’ so explosive,” Akanno said of Trower, who had five blocks and a dunk in the first quarter against Hart, but played limited minutes due to foul trouble.
The Indians won that matchup 64-57. It was third of five straight road games for the Vikings.
Valencia went 3-2 during that stretch.
“Five in a row on the road this year was a gauntlet,” Phillips said, “because the way league is set up (with so much) parity. That was tough. So for us to get back home and get in the comfort of our own gym, our own rims, just the color — get back in the purple and gold — that felt good.”
The Vikings beat Saugus 57-51 at home Tuesday in what felt like a playoff atmosphere, Akanno said. The point guard expects no less tonight.
“(We’re) fighting for a league title,” he said, “and it’s against Hart at our house.”