To say the last few weeks have been tough sledding for the West Ranch boys basketball team would be an understatement.
It started when head coach Shant Bicakci stepped down on Dec. 8, citing “personal reasons,” Then came finals week, followed by a grueling slate at the Mission Prep Classic in San Luis Obispo, for which the team had just two practices to prepare for.
That slate included a 79-30 loss to Bishop Montgomery, ranked first in the state and fifth nationally, per MaxPreps, without leading scorer Austin Galuppo.
“I’m not going to lie, there was a cloud hanging over us,” said West Ranch interim coach Sean McKillop. “Shant was a big role model in the lives of these kids. They were emotionally shaken.”
McKillop helped usher a “semi-smooth” transition thanks to six seasons spent as an assistant under Bicakci, who took over the program in 2010. McKillop, a high school teammate of Bicakcki’s at Saugus, took last year off from coaching. He rejoined the team this season after the resignation of assistant James De Monbrun.
“It’s tricky, you can’t be too demanding at first because you have to be cognizant of the situation,” McKillop said. “You have to find that balance.”
The Wildcats (5-3) have struggled to find that balance out of the gate, dropping three of their first four games under McKillop. They’ll get a chance to regroup a bit at the Ventura Tournament, starting Dec. 27.
“You need some pretty special kids to trust someone so foreign to them,” McKillop said. “That’s not easy for players at any level.
Due to his last-minute arrangement to join West Ranch this season, McKillop is unsure if he’ll remain the Wildcats’ coach beyond this season. He said Bicakci had a sense of relief leaving the program in his hands, aiding in his decision to resign.
McKillop inherits a squad that’s reached the CIF-Southern Section playoffs the last six seasons, including an outright Foothill League title in 2013 and a share of the title in 2011.
Though he spent time as an assistant for the better part of the last seven years, the only player he entered with complete familiarity was Galuppo. The senior shooting guard dropped 28 points in the team’s win Tuesday over Brethren Christian.
Galuppo has already received offers from San Jose State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and is also garnering interest from Dartmouth, Cornell and Princeton. Junior Andrew Austin will serve as the team’s other primary scorer.
“It’s no secret that we ride those two,” McKillop said.
Senior forward Josh Paz is slated to work in a utility role. McKillop also raved about junior guard Deaken Stangl, who tore it up in West Ranch’s lower levels the last two seasons.
De Monbrun was responsible for the team’s complex motion offense it ran last season. McKillop has moved away from that scheme, relying on the defensive side of the ball to win games.
“In a situation like this, I think it’s best to just simplify things,” McKillop said. “This is one of the most self-aware teams I’ve been around. They know when they play defense and rebound, we can hang with elite teams.”
Through all the turmoil, the Wildcats took home first place at the Duel in the Desert earlier this month, with a one-point win over Valencia. They’ll once again be contenders for a Foothill League title, with Galuppo possibly serving as the league’s top talent.
“This could be a good situation for them,” McKillop said. “We’ve had teams in the past get caught playing their best basketball too early in the season. A lot of the stuff were implementing should come to fruition by league play.”