Two years ago, when Davis High boys basketball coach Dan Gonzalez decided to call on former University of Redlands mentor Gary Smith for a helping hand in revitalizing the Blue Devils’ pedestrian offense, the move provided the chance for a pair of then-juniors to prove themselves as legitimate offensive providers.
In The System (a shot-a-second attack crafted by Smith over the course of his exceptional 37-year career in the Southland), DHS guards James Kilkenny and Tommy Slabaugh got their chances to contribute.
“What I found with The System was it gave everyone an opportunity to show their abilities — and I was able to prove myself,” Slabaugh says.
Now seniors on a Blue Devil squad awaiting its first playoff appearance since 2010, both Kilkenny and Slabaugh have learned to use The System as an escape from traditional basketball; an avenue through which the pair use their athleticism and scoring abilities to help DHS put points on the board in bunches.
“They’ve been good role players for (us); James is predominantly the screener and Tommy can play various positions,” explains Gonzalez, the popular math teacher who is now in his 15th season at the Devil helm.
When they are not starting, Kilkenny and Slabaugh often are first off the bench as a part of the breakneck scheme’s frequent substitution approach. The duo agree that if it weren’t for The System, each might not be seeing as much playing time.
“For me, my junior year, I probably wouldn’t have gotten any minutes at all if we hadn’t run The System,” Kilkenny admits.
But even when they’re on the bench, the pair prove essential to the team’s success: keeping their heads in the game and providing feedback to their teammates on the court.
“I don’t sit down … I usually talk a lot,” Slabaugh says, sounding a little like a coach himself. “I’m always watching the game; always seeing what’s going on; seeing if someone does something, making sure that everyone on the bench knows that what they did was either really great and letting them on the court know by cheering; or saying, hey, they did something wrong and we need to go in the next time and fix it … make sure we don’t make the same mistake.”
The two seniors, whose seasonlong efforts were acknowledged last Wednesday during Senior Night ceremonies, both set career scoring highs in last month’s 134-55 trouncing of Valley Christian. Kilkenny’s high-water mark was 15 points, while Slabaugh’s new standard was 18.
On the season, Slabaugh is averaging five points a night, Kilkenny four. But each has contributed huge baskets in clutch situations and has helped DHS post an 88-points-per-game average — the high-scoring prep offense in California.
Coincidentally, the Blue Devils’ 134 points shattered their month-old scoring record of 118 (set in December against Burton of San Francisco).
For Kilkenny, who has spent his entire life in Davis, basketball began in city league when he was a third-grader at Valley Oak. The next year, Kilkenny began to play for the Wildcats club team (formerly known as Davis Hoops).
Kilkenny, who remained a Wildcat until he began playing for DHS his freshman year at Harper Junior High, has worked hard at developing his skills as a physical player, who, despite his 5-foot-10 frame, is not afraid to match up against any opponent.
Assistant coach Josh Reese attests to Kilkenny’s hard work.
“James is small in stature, but makes up for it with his determination and hustle on the court,” says Reese, a former Devil football and basketball player who went on to play running back at UC Davis. “(He’s) a very scrappy and hard-nosed kid who isn’t afraid to get on the floor and dive for a loose ball in traffic.”
Much like Kilkenny, Slabaugh’s basketball journey began at the city-league level. The only difference, though, was that Slabaugh’s city league career played out in Seattle.
Originally from Elk Grove, Slabaugh’s father Tom (who is now the symphonic and jazz band conductor at DHS) decided to go to the University of Washington to get his doctoral degree in conducting. The younger Slabaugh was 7 at the time.
Upon returning from his five-year northern stint, he began playing Hot Shots (another Davis club team), as a seventh-grader at Holmes.
In his time playing Hot Shots, Slabaugh established himself as a versatile guard who coach Reese describes as “a smooth and hard-working, long-endurance type of kid … (a guy who) can be effective wherever he is on the court.”
Outside of basketball, Kilkenny and Slabaugh’s lives still revolve around sports.
“I just like hanging out with friends and playing a lot of pick-up sports,” Kilkenny says.
Kilkenny also plans on joining some of his friends on the brand-new Blue Devil rugby squad, where he will be able to use his physical playing style to his advantage.
Just like Kilkenny, Slabaugh enjoys playing impromptu sports whenever he can, noting: “I’ll play any sport, any time of the day, any day of the week.”
Slabaugh also has found a passion in refereeing for city league hoops, something he just started doing this year.
Upon graduation, Kilkenny is expected to attend Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, where he would like to continue his basketball career. When asked what he might like to do for a living, Kilkenny replied, “I think that I might want to be a cop, but I’m not really sure yet.”
Like Kilkenny, Slabaugh sees his calling in the legal system, but as a lawyer.
Why an attorney?
“I love history … I love arguing … And there’s some fundamental beliefs that I have, and I really want to change things; make them for the better.”
Slabaugh plans to attend a community college in Berkeley before transferring to Cal.
Before the senior duo move on, however, they will put their respective skill sets on display at least once more for Blue Devils fans when the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs begin next week. DHS officials have been waiting anxiously to see where the 16-10 Devils, who finished third in the Delta Valley Conference, fall in the scheme of Division I playoffs.
CIF will announce the brackets Wednesday.