In one of his first team meetings as head coach of the Boise High boys basketball team last season, Manny Varela cut straight to the point.
“If you can’t play defense, you can’t play for us,” he said.
Varela has stayed true to his word, turning the Braves into the top defensive team in the 5A classification this season and earning the program’s first trip to the state tournament in 20 years.
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The Braves (18-5) play their first state game since 1997 at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa against northern runner-up Post Falls (18-3).
With an aggressive man-to-man defense modeled after Varela’s coaching mentor — former Borah coach Cary Cada — the Braves have limited opponents to 44.5 points per game.
“It’s fun to play with this group of guys, because they sell out on defense,” junior point guard Paul Pennington said. “They just know how to play. They’re just nasty on defense.”
During summer ball, Boise assistant coach Paul Perotto used sandpaper grit numbers to rate the Braves’ defensive performances. The lower the number, the larger and more abrasive the sandpaper — or defense.
The goal was 20 grit, a theme that has stuck with the Braves this season.
Before each game, every member of the team touches a letter “B” cut out of sandpaper as they leave the locker room to remind them of their defensive goals.
“Coach is always saying we’ve got to be gritty on defense,” senior guard Jack Streeby said. “It kind of stuck and we all liked it, just to be tough.”
After serving as an assistant coach under Cada for six years — including three state championship runs — Varela knew when he took over a program of his own, he wanted to employ many of the defensive principles Cada used to win four state titles.
“I still talk to him all the time,” Varela said. “He gave me the breakdown on Post Falls, what he thinks they’ll do to us. He wanted to have my take on how I would do it, and then he critiqued it, because that’s what he does. That’s how personally as a coach I get better, by checking in with him.”
While Varela has leaned on Cada for guidance, the 20 grit defense is unique to the Braves and reflective of their young coach.
“He loves his job. He has a lot of passion in coaching basketball,” junior guard Lucas Centeno said. “He always is pushing us to go further, too. He doesn’t settle for average or below average. It’s always trying to get to the next step.”
Ending the state tournament drought is one step the Braves wanted to take, but it’s not the only one. Although this week’s state experience will be foreign to everyone on the team but their coach, the Braves are intent on proving they belong.
“We had expectations for ourselves, and we set really high goals,” Varela said. “Finishing second in the conference wasn’t good enough for us, and finishing second in districts, we felt that we should have been first.”
Luckily for the Braves, the season isn’t over yet.