June 15, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Hillcrest Christian ends Irvine’s memorable season with win in CIF second round game

Cooper Stearns brings the ball up for Irvine Friday night. No. 11 is Taewon Kim. (Photo: Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone).

It was a year of firsts for Irvine High’s boys basketball program.

… First trip to the CIF playoffs in nine years.

… First CIF playoff victory in 15 years.

… First 16 win season in more than 20 years.

The third-seeded Vaqueros were hoping to add another achievement with a second round CIF 3A playoff victory over Hillcrest Christian Friday night at Irvine.

But Hillcrest Christian battled back from a two-point halftime deficit with a strong second half effort to capture a 50-40 victory over the Vaqueros. The Saints (21-8) turned the tide outscoring Irvine 14-5 in the third quarter and the Vaqueros (16-14) could never recover.

“That’s a really tough loss, however we have to keep it in perspective that this was a really special year of growth for us,” said Irvine Coach Harry Meussner, after meeting with this players in the team room. “We qualified top four in the PCL, that was our goal to start the year. We wanted to have the least points allowed in league, we did it.

“We wanted to make the playoffs, we made the playoffs, we wanted to win a playoff game, we won a playoff game, the only thing left was to win CIF and when it’s playoff time, you have to string a lot of good games together. We executed our game plan, we just couldn’t hit shots, and credit to Hillcrest, they knocked down some really tough shots, especially in the second quarter and down the stretch, we just needed to make a few more.

“But the effort and the energy and the commitment from this team all year, I was very proud of them and I love them all, they’re a very special group and they’ve taken a huge step forward for this program and I’m eternally grateful for that.”

Junior Cooper Stearns led Irvine with 15 points and 14 rebounds. Taewon Kim, who scored 11 points, was the only other Vaquero who scored in double figures. Junior Caymen Wimmer scored 12 points to lead Hillcrest Christian, which moves on to meet Mary Star in the quarterfinals.

The Saints held a 38-31 lead going into the fourth quarter. But the Vaqueros made a run, cutting the lead to 38-34 on a steal and basket by Stearns. Irvine was able to trim the lead to two points on a basket by Jaesang An with under four minutes, but Hillcrest Christian was able to make key shots down the stretch, moving to an 8-point lead with 39 seconds remaining.

“We couldn’t shoot the ball from three and that hurt us,” Meussner said

Irvine jumped out a 10-point lead in the first quarter before Hillcrest Christian began climbing back.

“We came out really hot, a hot start at home,” said Stearns. “I credit Hillcrest Christian for how they were able to play defense and force us to make tough shots, all credit to them. It was just a hard-fought battle, close the whole time. Unfortunately we couldn’t come out with the win but I thought Hillcrest Christian played very well and they won themselves the game and they deserved this win.

“It was tough, we kept getting open looks and nothing was falling, we kept playing really solid defense and when shots aren’t falling, it’s tough to win games. I credit our guys, we didn’t back down, we didn’t quit until the buzzer sounded at the end. We didn’t shoot it very well today and unfortunately sometimes those days happen and it’s a bummer it was this game. We left everything out there on the floor.

“We did great things this year, we battled through so much adversity this year, just with injuries and the ups and downs and being able to scrape out a top four finish in our league and go win a playoff win which we hadn’t done in 15 years is a great thing. We wanted to make a farther run in playoffs, but unfortunately our journey ended today. I’m just so proud of these guys and so proud of the seniors for all the adversity they battled through for four years, three years. I’m sad it had to end early but I’m very proud of the direction our program is going and I think we’re going to have big things to come our way.”

“Right now, it’s about honoring the seniors, Finn (Hoffman), Ryan (Bugay), Jaesang, Amari (Haji), Archit (Raul), it’s about them, their leadership meant the world to this team and that’s why we got to where we got to,” Meussner added. “The 2023-24 Irvine Vaqueros was a special team and they will always be a special team in Irvine Vaquero history. That’s the most wins for our program in a very long time.”

—Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com