By Matt Schawb, The Patch
LIVERMORE, Calif. - Nick Evans and John Ketchel have been teammates since middle school. They were standout players during a glorious time for the Freedom High program in the Bay Valley Athletic League.
Today, they share the same backcourt at Las Positas, as well as a Freedom fighter mindset and a thirst for excellence in the unrelenting Coast Conference-North Division.
Evans, a sophomore, and Ketchel, a freshman, combined for 34 points in a clutch 94-89 win over Canada on Friday, which completed a big week for the resurgent Hawks, who also avenged a loss to Foothill.
The Hawks (16-9, 4-5 Coast-North) next travel to state No. 1 City College of San Francisco (24-1, 8-0) on Friday before completing conference play against Chabot and Skyline.
The Hawks are spreading their wings, making a late-season push.
"We've got two great big men (Anand Hundal and Peter Hewitt) and Nick Evans is a great scorer," Ketchel says. "We've got a bunch of shooters, drivers, people that can score. We really have a lot of talent here … Hopefully we can make this last run and get into the playoffs and make some noise."
Against Canada, Evans, averaging 12.8 points a game, delivered a polished performance with 21 points, and Ketchel had 13 points and 11 assists.
"Nick and John played really well the other night, Nick, probably his best game overall at LPC," Hawks coach James Giacomazzi said.
After a rough 2-5 start in conference, the Hawks made some adjustments which paid off against the two Peninsula powers.
"This past week we came with a different approach." Evans said. "We worked on slowing the game down a bit more and really evaluating our offense, trying to get smarter shots and make use of the shot clock more instead of just coming down and running and gunning and just one shot, one pass."'
Ketchel, the BVAL MVP as a senior, has a knack for pointing a team in the right direction. During his three years at Freedom, the Falcons went 29-1 in the BVAL, earned three league championships, and advanced to the NorCal playoffs twice. Ketchel and Evans were part of a Dream Team in 2013-14 when Evans was a junior and Ketchel a sophomore. The Falcons advanced to the NorCal final before falling 59-51 to Monte Vista in overtime.
After that memorable 2013-14 season, the Falcons lost a lot to graduation, but guys like Evans would not let the program take a backward step. The overachieving 2014-15 team made it all the way back to NorCals and stunned Bellarmine Prep in the first round. Evans led the way as a first-team all-BVAL selection.
"Nick was great," Freedom coach Drew Torres recalled. "He always plays hard and he can shoot the ball."
Things haven't come easily this season for Ketchel, and so he turned to an old friend and mentor, Torres.
"I have had some rough patches throughout the year with basketball mentally and stuff like that," Ketchel said, "and Torres has always been there for me, so I stay in touch with Torres just because of the four great years I had with him at Freedom, and I just wanted to keep that relationship with him as I get older."
Ketchel describes junior college players as bigger, stronger, and faster than the ones he faced in high school. But he's making the necessary adjustments.
"You're playing against kids every night that are really good, because in college nobody is going to play basketball just because they're bored or just to do it," Ketchel said. "The majority of them are trying to get a scholarship … In junior college basketball it's eat or be eaten."
Ketchel was part of a long line of strong point guards at Freedom. Back in 2013-14, Falcons star Rodney Pope groomed young Ketchel for the point. That year the 160-pound Ketchel also had the unenviable task of matching up in practice with Joe Mixon, a basketball and football force who went on to Oklahoma football and the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Joe did not take it easy on him and I know John's thankful for that," Torres recalled.
Ketchel attributes the Hawks' resurgence in the conference to controlling tempo, offensive execution, and patience.
"We looked at those first seven games and realized we couldn't keep doing what we were doing," Ketchel said. "In the preseason we might have gotten away with some stuff, but we can't really get away with a lot in the conference. Coach James tell us that every day, so we kind of had to go back to the drawing board."
The Hawks program has been riding a BVAL wave of sorts. In addition to Evans and Ketchel, former Heritage standout Jason Augliera has been giving the team quality minutes. Why the East Contra Costa County connection with Hawk Nation?
"I think it's hard for BVAL guys to try to find quality juco in their backyard," Ketchel said. "Las Positas is a good quality juco. They put players out to the next level and they have a track record, especially with Coach James, and the coaching staff there is a pretty good. I think players are just attracted to the success and the idea of playing at the next level."
Ketchel added that Coach James is "all about us. His relationships with the players are pretty good. His character kind of brings people to Las Positas."