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Padre Pio, with 19 students, defies the odds as No. 1 seed

This is basically the Padre Pio team. From left, Vinny Soto, Mark Washicko (11), coach Chuck Selway, Danny Soto (22), Kevin Crostic, Josh Martin (25) and Mark Odou. Martin Henderson/For ESPNLA.com

FULLERTON -- There are 19 students in the high school. There are six players on the boys’ basketball team. And Padre Pio Academy defies the odds as the No. 1 seed in the Southern Section Division 6A playoffs.

The book says the Rebels should utilize a zone defense, but they run a man.

The book says they should run out of gas, but they always seem to have plenty in the tank.

The book, more often than not, also says that Padre Pio scores more points than its opponents.

That’s what it did on Friday in its first-round game at Eastside Christian. The Rebels, despite a poor job of shooting early on, scored a 60-33 victory over Pacific Lutheran, a team from the Mulholland League.

A freelance school in Garden Grove, Padre Pio (21-4) extended its winning streak to 15 games. It got 23 points and 21 rebounds from its one senior, Danny Soto, and 20 points—on four three-point baskets—from junior Matt Odou.

It also won with a defense that gives up just 37 points per game.

“We were way too rushed,” Soto said afterward. “We seemed to try to rush instead of slowing it down. I lost a lot of my shots earlier on.”

At least Soto was honest enough to say that he and his teammates were probably pressing, given the attention the team has received in the last couple of days. They aren’t used to many eyes being on them. At tipoff Friday, the Rebels were being watched by 41 people — including the scorekeepers, a reporter and a mascot.

Earlier this week in practice, Soto, a 6-foot-1 guard, routinely dropped three-pointers during a rare practice indoors, moving from one spot to another in quick succession.

Padre Pio might be the only team that practices weather permitting. It usually practices on the asphalt behind the school, pushed off to the side of the parking lot. The courts aren’t regulation length, but the rims are the required 10 feet high. Remember that scene from Hoosiers? The game is still played at 10 feet.

The team doesn’t practice every day, either. Not like normal teams. Coach Chuck Selway is a salesman who volunteers his time. Sometimes he can make a practice, often he can’t. So the team meets at lunch — and runs lines. They are, if nothing else, a rarity.

They run lines a lot, and in the lower divisions they have found that they can play with anybody without getting winded.

“Most of the time we practice on our own,” Soto said. “It requires a lot of discipline. I don’t know of a lot of teams that run lines during their free time.”

Selway, who also coaches the girls’ sport on campus, cross country, says it’s pretty simple.

“After school they’ll run lines, run a couple of drills, and then they’re done,” he said of his team’s informal get-togethers after school.

When the team does practice indoors, it’s at the Boys Club of Garden Grove, but for that luxury it costs the program $100. The team practices indoors about three times a month, and Selway estimated that 80 percent of his team’s practices are outside.

Soto was the division’s co-player of the year in the division in 2010 even though Padre Pio lost in the second round of the playoffs. Such honors are almost always reserved for someone who reaches the title game. He showed why against Pacific Lutheran. His 23 points came after a dreadful first half of shooting, and he also added 21 rebounds, eight more than his average

This year Soto has averaged 20.1 points a game, “but basically he can score whenever he wants, he’s that good of a scorer,” said Odou (6-1) who has averaged 13.5 points. “He’s a great team player and can score 30 if he wants, but he chooses to pass the ball more, and that wins games.”

That, and defense. Most coaches would envy the way Selway’s players have bought into the program.

Only five times this season have the Rebels defense allowed more than 50 points — with a high of 57 in a 59-50 victory. Their four losses are to just two teams, Crean Lutheran (a 5AA team), 49-38 and 55-45, and Capistrano Valley Christian (6AA), 42-31 and 54-50.

They came into the season having lost one of their leading scorers and three-point shooters from a year ago and two key defensive players. Until sophomore Josh Martin, a sophomore who never played organized basketball, joined the team the Rebels were running with only five players.

Martin is one of three sophomores, including Mark Washicko (6-0), and Kevin Crostic, who’s pushing 6-4. The expectation among his peers is that Crostic will one day be as good as Soto. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but when,” Washicko said.

Rounding out the squad is junior Vinny Soto (5-11), Danny’s younger brother. He’s the press-breaking point guard. Vinny Soto is the ninth of 11 Soto children; a younger bother, Dominic, is in the seventh grade and will finish off the family’s legacy. Manuel Soto is Selway’s assistant coach.

The players think they are often taken for granted by opponent, citing instances of getting sized up and laughed at when they walk onto the gym floor. Once, Odou noted, “the refs were looking at us and laughing, but we won by 40.”

For being such a small team, Padre Pio has a lot of the necessary elements to succeed: the ball-handler Vinny Soto, the scorer Danny Soto, the shooter Odou, the big man Crostic, the defender Washicko and the team player Martin. Only the point guard is shorter than 6-0.

“This is the year,” Selway said. “We did pretty well last year, and there are teams out there that are a little bigger. But we play hard, our defense is very good and we work together.”