Calabasas Jews hoop it up

While Jews all over the world gathered on March 7 to retell the story of Purim, the nine Jews on the Calabasas high school boys basketball team celebrated differently: by playing in their first California Interscholastic Federation State Tournament.

The Coyotes, with five starters “who have been bar mitzvahed,” as their Jewish coach said, earned the No. 3 seeding in the Division III bracket and were scheduled (as of The Journal’s press time on Tuesday) to host Frontier High of Bakersfield at 7 p.m.

“I don’t know if there’s another public high school in the country with a basketball team with an all bar mitzvah starting five,” coach Jon Palarz said. He added that he considered holding practices on Sundays instead of Saturdays, but section rules prohibit it except for Jewish schools.

This is the first time the Coyotes (27-3, ranked 29th in the state by high school sports network MaxPreps) have reached the state tournament. Palarz, however, has been here before. He coached Campbell Hall in Studio City to State semifinal and quarterfinal berths in his three seasons there in the 1990s, and after that guided Lake Washington High in Kirkland, Wash. to the state semifinals.

In routing South Torrance High 69-39 to claim the section Division 3AA championship last week, the Coyotes displayed scoring depth as sophomore point guard Jeremy Lieberman led with 15 points, followed by senior center Holden Israel with 14 points. The three other Jewish starters are junior wingman Alex Monsegue, senior forward Joshua Cohan and senior guard Spencer Levy.

“It’s a unique aspect of our team camaraderie, our team culture,” Palarz said.

All five played on the varsity last year, when the Coyotes finished 20-9 and lost in the second round of the section playoffs. Palarz said the nine grew up together and many have played in the annual Maccabi Games.

The Jewish players are aware of their majority (nine Jews, six non-Jews), Palarz said, but it’s not something highlighted or stressed. Much like a baseball team might have all Latin starters and a basketball team might have all black starters, he said, the Coyotes are more than just a Jewish team.

“We’re proud of this heritage,” Palarz said, “but our team is the Calabasas High School team.”