Home court advantage is called that for a reason.
The benefits of playing at home are plentiful. From avoiding the rigors of travel to having more fans in the crowd (which can sometimes influence opposing players or referees) to just being familiar with the court are just a few of the conveniences a home team has compared to its visiting opponent.
“Playing at home obviously gives you the advantage of your own crowd,” Valencia senior forward Josh Assiff said. “Usually things tend to go your way more with the flow of the game and even with the officials.”
Since the home team is considered to have a noteworthy advantage, it would make sense in a playoff format to reward the team that had a better regular season with a home game over a team with a lesser record, like it’s done in professional sports.
That wasn’t the case for the Valencia boys basketball team.
Despite having a better overall and league record than its opponent, Rancho Cucamonga, the Vikings had to travel nearly 85 miles east to Rancho Cucamonga High School for the CIF-Southern Section Division 2AA semifinals on Saturday, a trip that took close to two and a half hours.
It was the third straight playoff game for the Cougars after opening the playoffs on the road at Hesperia High School, which is roughly 30 miles north of Rancho Cucamonga.
Rancho Cucamonga played Camarillo in the quarterfinals, the other top seed in the bracket, at home as well.
“We knew that we were a higher seed and we will definitely start off with a home game, but we weren’t sure what was to come in the semifinals like last year, and it was a coin flip and we lost,” Assiff said. “Personally, I feel that the team of the better record should have a home game but we did say to really earn a CIF championship you got to go and win one on the road in a tough environment. We just took it as a chip on our shoulder and we wanted to go on the road and pull one out.
“I feel no matter what team you are, home or on the road, you have to be able to be mentally ready to go to win the game.”
The uproarious environment at Rancho Cucamonga seemed to affect the Vikings, as they faltered late in the game despite having a lead with a few minutes remaining.
Also, senior point guard Richard Kawakami got into early foul trouble, which prevented him from finding a rhythm. He fouled out in the fourth quarter as did senior Jayden Trower, leaving the Vikings without two of their most experienced players.
“It’s hard, but you have to keep a positive attitude and move on because from past experiences, arguing and making a big deal about it never ends in your favor,” Kawakami said about dealing with unfavorable calls.
For the playoffs, the CIF assigns referees outside of their normal section to try and steer clear from referee bias, but officials aren’t robots. Home crowds could potentially affect a referee’s decision-making, as Assiff and Kawakami know from personal experience.
“Playing on the road is always a disadvantage, but some things that really stand out on the road is that the refs are in favor of the home team,” Kawakami said. “Also, home crowds can be very overwhelming at times. Referees can be influenced by a home crowd because they are humans like us and feel the pressure from the crowd.”
“100 percent definitely,” he said when asked if a home crowd could influence an official. “I’ve gotten calls that way before.”
Even with added obstacles in a road game, experienced players are better equipped at getting past bad calls or tuning out a raucous audience.
In West Ranch’s second-round Division 2A playoff game against Peninsula, the Wildcats faced not only the Panthers, but a rambunctious home crowd.
Fortunately for head coach Ron Manalastas, his team is stockpiled with experienced players who have been in high-pressure situations before.
“It’s nice to have experience in situations when it’s close. It’s always a good thing. Our guys handle the adversity really well,” he said about playing in a boisterous environment.
In the game against Peninsula, West Ranch junior Dylan Stuman missed the rim on his first 3-pointer, prompting the home crowd to chant “airball” every time he touched the ball.
Instead of letting the crowd get into his head, Stuman silenced it with his play, sinking two 3-pointers in a row to take the home fans out of the game.
“I don’t the student section phase me. I’ve been here before,” he said after the contest.
While fans can get extremely loud and borderline aggressive at times, the majority of the time it comes from a place of competitiveness and good fun.
But in rare moments, a parent or family member of a player can cross the line, adding yet another road obstacle no player should ever have to deal with.
“Yes, I have hostile stuff on the road. It usually comes from you know, a bang bang or altercation that happened on the court and sometimes people or family of those players, they will want to get involved by saying things and basically threatening,” Assiff said. “Which then leads to people talking about they want to fight after the game and all those things like that in that manner.”
In fact, Valencia had to be ushered out of the gym quickly in its latest game against the Cougars.
“After our recent playoff game against Rancho Cucamonga, we had to be escorted by security through a back exit and were not able to say hi to family,” Kawakami said. “We immediately went straight to the bus.”