They played together on a youth club team called the A-Town Dawgs in elementary school that won several basketball tournaments.
Then they’d battle for hours against each other in outdoor pick-up games in the rain.
The piercing Atascadero winter cold that made the skin on their fingertips split from shooting. Sometimes they argued and occasionally tears were shed.
After particularly vicious games they’d go to separate rooms to sulk. But inevitably they’d patch things up and enjoy their time together as friends.
The Atascadero natives now are much older, taller, stronger, tougher, faster and helping to fuel success for the Atascadero High’s basketball team. The Greyhounds take on San Luis Obispo High tonight at home at 7 p.m.
The former A-Town Dawgs include Robbie Berwick, Connor Kim, Jared Stuedemann, Grant Woodard and Joe Johnson.
As young kids, they traveled to games in Santa Barbara, San Diego, Reno, Nev., and Las Vegas and won more than 20 major tournaments over a three-year period in grade school.
Now they’re part of a high school squad with 10 juniors, two sophomores and just three seniors.
The more mature Greyhounds are 11-8 overall, but they’ve won 10 of 11 after starting 0-5 following a deep run in the football playoffs that gave some players a late start in gearing up for the basketball season.
Atascadero is 4-2 and in third place in the PAC 7, one-half game behind second-place St. Joseph. Righetti leads the PAC 7, and defending champ Arroyo Grande is also in contention at 4-3 in the PAC 7.
“We’re at our best when our game flows and when we’re playing like a unit,” Kim said. “We’ve played together for so long, we just know our tendencies. We know what everybody does best.”
Like when they were young kids, the tight knit bunch competed against each other vigorously in practice, simulating a game-like atmosphere.
In a recent drill, players fought tooth and nail for loose balls and rebounds. Then after they were done, they play wrestled and cracked jokes.
They jested with their first-year coach, Matt Knudson, nicknamed “Lefty,” about 1-on-1 games. Knudson is a former Greyhound and Cuesta College player, and was a standout 3-point shooter at Sonoma State in the early 2000s.
“He always says he can beat us and then we take him,” said Berwick, the team’s point guard who is averaging 13 points and eight assists per game.
True or not, Knudson, quietly listening to the smack talk, doesn’t bite. He simply smiles and shakes his head.
He’s more interested in getting his team ready to play a tough upcoming stretch of games to decide the league title, which includes Arroyo Grande, St. Joseph, and Righetti.
The Greyhounds beat Arroyo Grande 49-48 earlier this season at home. But they lost on the road to St. Joseph and Righetti — both teams they’ll see again at home Feb. 4 and Feb. 6 respectively.
“At home, it’s going to be a different story,” said Connor Kim, a reserve guard shooting 54 percent this season. “You just can’t escape this orange.”
The “orange” is a blast of color from the dozens of glittering banners hanging in the school’s gym.
Atascadero plays a team-oriented brand of basketball shepherded by Berwick, who has received college interest from the likes of Gonzaga, UC Santa Barbara, Florida State and Cal Poly.
Unlike many star high school players, Berwick, a three-year varsity player, focuses on getting his teammates involved, sometimes finishing with about as many assists as points. But in two big games, he had 31 points against Arroyo Grande and 24 against St. Joseph.
With energy and athleticism, the Greyhounds push the ball on fast breaks as much as possible — a style that goes back to their early years.
“We’ve never had a 6-foot-8 kid on our team, so we’ve relied on our run and gun,” Berwick said.
As perhaps the team’s most noticeable player, Berwick was heckled in a hostile environment at St. Joseph.
One bare-chested fan barked at Berwick like a dog from the sideline during the game while being restrained by a leash held by another student, the Greyhound players said.
The heckling led to some discussion between the schools. Knudson said that the issue has been quashed and the schools plan to keep civility. Still, on the basketball court, the team has banded together over the insult.
“When we play St. Joe, it’s going to be a war,” Berwick said. “I hope they know what’s coming for them.”
The scoring is spread out amongst many players, including junior forward Joel Wood and sophomore center Ryan O’Connell, who both shoot around 60 percent. Atascadero averages 70 points per contest.
They’ve also mastered a penetration and kick offense that has benefited players such as Joe Johnson, a smooth left-handing guard who averages 10 points per game.
The Greyhounds say that their coach can be intense and direct about pointing out mistakes. But the team can relate to him, trust his expertise, and players know he wants to make them better.
Stuedemann said that Knudson will yell during games, making comments such as “Jared, he was so wide open it’s sick,” or “Robbie, you’re so much better than that.”
“He’s really tough at times, and he’s intense, but we love him,” Stuedemann said. “We relate to him.”
In a game in December, Stuedemann had a hot hand, scoring 29 points going head to head against Campbell Hall’s Aaron Holiday, brother of NBA star Jrue Holiday.
But even then, Knudson was on him to move the ball and get to the right spots on the court.
“We have a team mentality,” Knudson said. “We want to get everybody involved. They’re experienced for so many being underclassmen. We’re still getting better every day.”
Knudson keeps a close eye on shooting percentage as a primary statistic and strives to get the ball to players who are shooting a high percentage.
For example, 6-4 sophomore center Ryan O’Connell is shooting about 60 percent from the floor. Johnson shoots 51 percent and 47 percent from 3-point range.
“Joe is shooting such a good percentage in part because he’s the first one into the gym and the last to leave,” Knudson said. “Not only is he a great 3-point shooter, he’s a great mid-range shooter. We need to get him and Ryan the ball more.”
Johnson said the Greyhounds know they likely will have to win the rest of their six games to win the PAC 7, but they believe it can happen.
“We just have to put the pieces together,” Johnson said. “We go through spurts of great runs, but we have to stay consistent. You gotta play fearless.”
To get those good shots, Kim said the passing game that the Greyhounds have employed so well in their wins is what they’ll need to continue. And defense is always a priority.
Despite the challenges, the sense of cohesion, win or lose, is something that comes easily to a tight-knit bunch just like when they were a bunch of kids in a hotel room having fun after tournament games.
“It feels like a family,” Grant Woodard said. “We’ve known each other for so long. We’ve traveled together and now we hang out off the court.”
On his way out of the gym after practice, Stuedemann barked out “Family for life.”