Kiefer Nguyen may not be the most talented player on the Oakwood High boys basketball team, but he’s definitely one of the most valuable.
“I’ve got bigger kids and better athletes, but I can’t take Kiefer off the floor because he shoots the ball so well,” said Kort Jensen, who is in his 13th season as the Oakwood coach. “He has the innate ability to score the ball, he can drive downhill, go left or right, but nobody notices him because he’s 5-foot-9 and we have multiple guys 6-5 and taller. So he literally flies under the radar.”
The senior guard is part of a Hawks team that has aspirations to win the first Central Coast Section championship in program history, win NorCals and state. If that sounds unachievable, just note Oakwood is ranked second in the state for Division V schools, according to Max Preps.
The Hawks enter the weekend at 20-1 overall and 8-0 in the Pacific Coast League’s Cypress Division. Jensen said it’s Fan Appreciation Night for Monday’s regular-season home-finale, a 7pm game which has free admission and no spectator restrictions. This is arguably Jensen’s most talented roster he’s had at Oakwood, which features freshman point guard Langston Watson and a bevy of big men who can all be dominant on a given night.
Nguyen, who is a four-year varsity player, said the players’ unselfishness and the improved chemistry on the team has been key in their success.
“The team dynamic has been great every year because we all trust each other like family,” he said.
With 6-6 Sandro Kokochasvili, 6-8 Luka Kokochasvili, 6-7 Martin Safranka, 6-5 Lazar Cancovic, 6-5 Roman Moskalenko and 6-4 Vlad Ziatsau, the Hawks have one of the biggest teams size-wise in the CCS despite having one of the smallest enrollments.
“I like the odds of this team because they are so diverse in so many different things in the game,” Jensen said. “If something is not working with our big guys, we can shift to an all guard lineup and press. If the press is not working, we can go big and play a front line of 6-6, 6-7, 6-8.”
Jensen acknowledged Watson is the straw that stirs the drink and said coaches and directors from the prominent Oakland Soldiers travel program were in attendance to watch Watson during the North Salinas game on Feb. 1, a 74-41 Oakwood victory.
“They were here and all over Langston to play for them, and that says all you need to know about Langston,” Jensen said. “But they also left wanting Lazar and Martin. Their head coach stuck around for a while which is a good sign for us and tells us our kids are doing well. … Every coach comes up after every game and says, ‘That kid (Watson) is so good.’ Even the referees talk about how good he is.”
Jensen said the program is thriving like never before, as this year the private Morgan Hill school is fielding three teams: freshmen, junior varsity and varsity.
“And in our middle school we have 35 boys playing, so it’s really caught on over here,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun from that perspective.”
Nguyen had 18 points in the North Salinas contest and has hit timely shots and displayed strong leadership throughout the season. He can knock down shots from 3-point range and has worked hard to improve defensively. Nguyen started developing a love for the game when he was in the seventh grade.
That’s when his parents got him a membership at the Centennial Recreation Center and also around the same time his grandma, Viet Le, showed him how to study the game and to learn things from the pros, in particular, former NBA player Jeremy Lin.
“My grandma introduced me to the game and Jeremy Lin was a big part of it,” Nguyen said. “That’s when I started watching basketball and started loving the game. I would sit at her house and watch for a few hours and try to copy the players’ moves and study the game.”
The story goes that Nguyen was named after “24” lead actor Kiefer Sutherland. Given the show premiered in 2001 and Nguyen was born in 2003, the timeline seems spot on. Nguyen has been a part of four league championship winning teams, but he hopes this team can do what no other Oakwood team in the past has done before.
“We want to take the next step to win CCS, NorCals and state,” he said. “It’s definitely our year to win CCS, and it would mean a lot to our school and be a great memory for all of us.”
Oakwood has never reached a CCS final let alone won one, and this season represents the team’s best chance to finally taste section glory.
“We always seem to run into a bigger dog in the playoffs,” Jensen said. “I would love to have a year where the kids can experience a CCS championship victory.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.