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LIVERMORE — With 50 seconds left and LPC up five on Butte College, there was a tinge of hesitancy in the eyes of head coach James Giacomazzi.

What he needed was someone who could handle the pressure of the moment. Someone who he knew he could trust to not make a game changing mistake that could cost them the game.

The problem: for 13 of the 16 players on the bench, this was their first time playing for the long-time LPC head coach.

This season could turn out to be the most challenging and the most rewarding for Giacomazzi. 

The No. 14 Hawks are returning just three players from a season ago — none of which were starters in 2023. 

On top of that, LPC doesn’t seem to have the all-state talent like a Michael Hayes or a Jordahn Johnson that has made them playoff contenders the last four seasons. 

The home tournament in early November, in which the Hawks went 2-1, gave the fans a good look at the challenges that the Hawks have ahead of them and why a successful season could cement Giacomazzi’s legacy as one of the best coaches in LPC history.

“We know coach Giacomazzi has won a lot of games in his career,” said LPC freshman point guard Elliot Mobley. “We just have to trust him and trust the process he’s set for us.”

The Hawks’ first game against Butte College felt like the LPC of old. 

Down 9 at halftime and trailing by as much as 13 in the second half, The Hawks flipped a switch. Butte did not make a single field goal from the 12 minute mark to 3 minutes left in the second half. On the other end, LPC scored 30 points in that same stretch mostly from creating turnovers and attacking the basket with reckless abandon. 

With the Hawks up, 73-65 with 3:12 left in the game, it looked like a closed case for the home team. Dribble out the clock, don’t foul and ease into a feel-good comeback victory against a team that LPC hasn’t beaten in its last two tries.

But that didn’t happen. With just under 30 seconds left and down 5 points, Butte was a stop and a made three from tying the game and going into overtime. 

Luckily for the Hawks, they made just enough free throws at the end of the game to come out with a 80-77 win. 

It was the kind of win that’s reminiscent of the great LPC teams under Giacomazzi: go down big at halftime, find a way to come back in the second half and somehow almost blow the lead before hitting a few big shots to seal a big win. 

The Hawks were put in the same type of predicament on Friday when they matched up with unranked American River College. 

Down just three points at half, things were trending upwards for LPC. If the Hawks could overcome a 13-point deficit just a night earlier, surely going into halftime down 39-36 would not be a challenge. 

But this time, that LPC magic suddenly ran out. 

American River put 57 points in the second half and held the Hawks to just 40 points. The more experienced, disciplined team showed itself late as the Hawks fell 96-76. 

Game three was a much better showing for the Hawks as they defeated Cosumnes River College 76-67. After leading for most of the game, the Hawks held a narrow 70-67 lead with under a minute left. But somehow the Hawks found it in them to close out the game with a win thanks in part to clutch free throw shooting by forward Alex Martin and Mobley. 

The three games played this past weekend is a good glimpse into what the Hawks could look like this season: a young squad who’s going to need to learn how to play together. 

Giacomazzi has done a good job historically  of blending different players with different personalities together on one team. But this team is much different from others he’s coached. 

This LPC team is guard heavy with Mobley and freshmen Elijah Mobley and Alex Ma —- a stark contrast from the days of all-conference big men Michael Hayes (2018-2020) and Jordahn Johnson (2021-2023). 

“We literally just want to create chaos,” Mobley said. “We just gotta make the game as fast as possible.”

Giacomazzi usually has a starter or two return for their sophomore season, but he will only have three returners this season. Forwards Jajuan Mitchell-Cox and Nay’Veon Reed along with guard CJ Ward are the team’s only returners from last season. All three will be thrust into bigger roles after playing in mostly reserve roles last season. 

“I think the key for me is to stay vocal,” Mitchell-Cox said. “I know I’m not the most talented player out there, but I’m not gonna get bullied by anybody and I’m for damn sure not gonna let my teammates get bullied by nobody. I got to lift everybody up. That’s my job.”

Giacomazzi hopes his three returners can also serve as the connective tissue that helps keep the locker room buying into the team’s plan to be state title contenders.

“We’re still a young team, we’re still learning,” Giacomazzi said. “We look for a lot from our returners …Those guys have to step up for sure.”

As Thursday’s game came to a close, the hesitancy in Giacomazzi’s eyes turned into relief. The 6-foot-5 coach ran into the locker room awaiting his players with high fives and dap-ups. 

Huddling with assistant coach Anthony Haskins, Giacomazzi couldn’t do anything but smile. It seemed as though in that moment, he and Haskins felt that everything was going to be alright. 

A loss against Butte could have easily turned into a learning lesson for the young team. 

But instead, coming out with the win gave Giacomazzi and the rest of the Hawks confidence that they could be something special when March rolls around.

For a team who wants to make a state title run, it’s going to fall on Giacomazzi and how he meshes this team together. 

No one would fault Giacomazzi if this team is not in the playoff hunt by season’s end. 13 new players, not having a dominant all-state athlete and the burnout of making it to the playoffs for eight straight seasons are enough to chalk this season up as a “rebuild year.”

But a deep playoff run with this team would only solidify Giacomazzi’s dominance as a coach in one of the toughest conferences in the state. The only thing missing is the coveted state title, and winning it with this group could be Giacomazzi’s finest accomplishment of his career.

Nathan Canilao is a freelance writer. Follow him @NATHANCANILAO on X.

Alex Martin (24) goes for a shot against Butte on Nov. 2, 2023. Courtesy of Alan Lewis.
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