Hialeah Gardens High will see five familiar faces on the Barry University men’s basketball team, the same group that was part of the school’s first state championship in just its third year of existence.
Sophomore forward Yunio Barrueta and freshmen players guard Adrian Gonzalez, forward Alvaro Simoza and guard Philly Leonardo were members of the Gladiators’ 2012 state championship team and hope their high school success can spill over to college basketball.And the man who guided the team to the pinnacle of high school basketball can help them on the college stage as well.
In August, former Gladiators’ head coach Marcos Molina joined the college team as one of the new volunteer assistant coaches to help Buccaneers’ freshmen players adjust to college basketball under new head coach Butch Estes.
The NCAA Division II school plays in the Sunshine State Conference (SSC), which is comprised of teams like Nova Southeastern, Lynn University, Florida Southern, Eckerd College, Florida Southern, Florida Tech, Rollins College and Tampa College. “I think it will be a little easier for them to make a transition from high school to college now,” said Molina.
The players’ decision to attend the same college coined the phrase, “Those who play together, stay together.”After playing one year of college basketball at East Tennessee State, Barrueta transferred to Barry University to be reunited with his teammates and former head coach.He left Tennessee after the team’s head coach was fired and the program was in shambles.
Barrueta didn’t want to start his college career amid the team’s turmoil.
“The assistant coach who recruited me also left the team, and then rumors began that the new head coach was planning to leave as well,” he said. “While I was home in Miami, I talked to my former teammates and they said they were going to Barry and I thought it would be a good idea to join them.”
Barrueta was more exulted that Molina joined the Buccaneers’ coaching staff. He said Molina coached him in middle school and high school and now in college.“We kept that bond going,” Barrueta said.Barrueta, Gonzalez, Simoza and Leonardo grew up together and played on the same team for three years, creating a strong bond that called for them to stick together during their college years.
The Buccaneers’ new players believe their solidarity can help the team on the basketball court, and bonding with their new teammates wasn’t a problem.
“We are bonding great with our teammates,” said Gonzalez, who initially chose Lynn University but enrolled at Barry after the entire coaching staff was fired.The players share the same goal of winning a national championship at Barry University.But the freshmen players acknowledged the challenge in high school is more arduous in college, as they’re learning a rash of defensive schemes to keep their opponents at bay.
“The defense is incredibly hard,” Gonzalez said. We have to work that much harder in college. High school was much easier because we knew we can beat a lot of teams, but in college, anyone can be beaten on any given night.”
Molina said the basketball program he ran at Hialeah Gardens helped prepare the players to make the transition to college.
“At Hialeah Gardens, it was like running a college program, with the hard practices, working out in the weight room and conditioning drills,” he said. “What I really like the most about college is the maturity of the kids. They are staring at a stage of men in basketball.”
Molina said he initially stepped down as the Gladiators’ head coach following last season to take some time off and spend time with his family. Heading up the program for four years took a toll on him. But when Estes, a longtime friend of his, got the head coaching job at Barry University and started recruiting players, Molina recommended the four players he coached to the state championship.
The players have a lot of family members in Miami and wanted to stay in town and play together.With a lot of convincing, Estes picked them up, along with Barrueta, and subsequently offered Molina an assistant coaching job.
Molina said it was a difficult decision to return to coaching but a golden opportunity to be part of the college tiers and reunite with his former players.
“It was an extremely difficult decision and very emotional,” Molina said.“After I had take some time off, Estes made it easier for me to make the transition to the college level.”
Barrueta said he advised his former Gladiators’ teammates to just be patient and be ready when their chances come.
“They have to understand their role as freshmen” he said. “They are not going to get a lot of playing time, but they must remain positive at all times and have their minds right so when they are called to play, they will be ready mentally.”
Like each season, Barry University is seeking to add more accolades, ultimately a national championship, to the annals of Buccaneers’ basketball and the four former Gladiators’ players are shooting for those marks.
The Buccaneers made three NCAA Tournament appearances and won the Sunshine State Conference in 2007, Defensive National Championship in 2003 and the 2004 Disney Division II Tip-off Classic crown.
Barrueta said the team’s No. 1 goal is to put the Buccaneers’ on the NCAA Tournament map.“We are going to put Barry there,” he said.The Buccaneers open up the preseason on Monday, November 4 at the University of South Florida.