You know you’ve arrived when Denzel Washington stops by just to say hello.
Windward High of Los Angeles, which only a few years ago was nothing more than a speck on the boys’ basketball landscape, is now a prime destination for blue-chip players, college recruiters and even Academy Award-winning actors.
The Wildcats have rose to the top through hard work by Coach Miguel Villegas and his staff, who have changed the mentality of the program, developed top age-group players and benefitted from a marquee transfer or two.
Windward is one step away from advancing to the Division 5 state championship game for the second consecutive season. The Wildcats are scheduled to play La Verne Lutheran on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the Southern California Regional Division 5 final at Colony High in Ontario.
"Seven years ago, people were laughing at me," Villegas said. "No one knew who Windward was until last year. Now, my phone doesn’t stop ringing."
The program gained notice about five years thanks to Cedric Latimer, an all-Southern Section forward who graduated in 2006 and went on to play for Santa Clara and then transferred to St. Francis (Pa.).
It turned the corner with the development of 6-foot-4 guard Darius Morris and the arrival last season of 6-10 center Anthony Stover, who Villegas said, "put the frosting on the cake.".
Morris was a four-year starter at Windward who led the Wildcats to the state title last season and recently completed his freshman season at Michigan, where he played in all 32 games, starting 19. Stover red-shirted for UCLA last season.
Also on last season’s team was point guard Malcolm Washington, the son of Denzel, who was a walk-on at Penn this winter.
The cupboard was hardly left bare, however.
Returning this season is 6-5 junior wing Wesley Saunders, who is averaging 22.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. Saunders is being heavily recruited by a number of top schools. He has already made an unofficial visit to Arizona.
Added to the mix this season is one of the top freshmen in the nation, 6-6 forward Chauncey Hill, and 6-4 sophomore Nick Stover, the younger brother of Anthony.
"A lot of parents have realized they don’t need their sons to go to a big-time school to get looked at," Villegas said.
While the program has lured some top talent, Villegas also made it clear that Windward demands its basketball players to be more than just good scorers and defenders.
"Windward is not going to let you in on athletic ability alone," he said.