Inland Empire: Popularity continues to swell with each Murrieta Valley victory

They gather in the hallways between classes, share stories at lunchtime and fill their side of the gymnasium long before tip-off.

The Murrieta Valley boys’ basketball team is the main conversation on campus these days. The Nighthawks have swelled their fan base with a remarkable postseason, winning the program’s first Southern Section title in the Division 2AA game Saturday night at Honda Center, then putting away visiting Burbank on Tuesday in the first round of the Southern California Regional Division 2 playoffs.

"They’re coming out of the woodwork," Coach Steve Tarabilda said of the growing number of supporters. "You can’t walk across the quad without someone talking about basketball."

Against Burbank, the Murrieta Valley fans filled their side of the gymnasium an hour before game time, then occupied half of the visitor’s bleachers. They saw the third-seeded Nighthawks fall behind by nine points in the first half, then steady their defense and pull away for a 61-36 victory.

Overcoming adversity has been the mantra for Murrieta Valley this season. In the middle of Southwestern League play, the Nighthawks lost second-leading scorer Austin Quick for the season due to a torn hip muscle, then dropped three of their next five league games to miss out on the championship for the first time in three seasons.

"When Austin Quick went down, it put a damper on the mood," Tarabilda said. "I told the team, ‘Oh man, we have to snap out of this.’ "

Murrieta Valley has rebounded with tenacious defense and a never-quit attitude. The Nighthawks have trailed in the first half of each of their last four playoff games, but led when it counted.

Now it’s on to the second round Thursday, when the Nighthawks will host Pasadena, the Division 2A runner-up.

Tarabilda was still building a game plan for the Bulldogs late Wednesday morning, in between high fives from students and pats on the back from administrators.

Tip off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Plan to arrive early.