Some say he’s cocky.
Maybe it’s because after Mission Prep’s Kyle Stewart blocked a shot to end the quarter against San Luis Obispo, he flexed on the way back to the bench. Or maybe because after he buries a jump shot in a defender’s face, he shakes his head as he runs down the court as if to say, “You can’t stop me.”
Stewart does these things to fire himself up, he said, but the on-court swagger goes away when the game stops.
The 6-foot-4 Oklahoma-native blushed when coach Terrance Harris called him “The Bachelor” as we stood on an empty Cowitz Court on Friday, ribbing him for his All-American good looks. He was sheepish when talking about his accomplishments from last season and was as genuinely inquisitive about my life as I was about his. And on-top of working on his game heading into his pressure-packed senior season, he spent time working with a charity co-founded by his brother.
He’s also pretty good at basketball. Enough so to be named named The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year.
It was the biggest game of the year.
Mission Prep was hosting St. Joseph on Feb. 3. The Knights from Santa Maria were riding a 19-game winning streak and siting in first place in the PAC 8.
This was the Royals’ last chance. Lose and the dream of back-to-back league titles was all but over. Win and the repeat was all but assured.
When the two teams played earlier in the season, it was ugly: A 55-39 loss for Mission Prep on the road.
“Losing to them the first time, it was tough,” Stewart said. “I knew coming into this game we were all focused. I knew that was the team that we had to beat.”
Mission Prep jumped out to a big lead, then St. Joseph stormed back in the third quarter.
“They were cutting it close. It was a three-point game. They kind of had some momentum,” Stewart said.
Then, right before the fourth quarter, Stewart stopped the momentum in its tracks with a half-court bomb.
“I just chucked it up and somehow it banked in,” Stewart said. “It’s always a running joke now because at the end of practice we always take a break and I try to hit the half-court shot. I don’t think I have hit one.”
Stewart scored 20 points in the game, 13 in the second half, and Mission Prep went on to win 68-62. After a couple of more wins, including a thrilling win at San Luis Obispo to end the season, Mission Prep were PAC 8 champs again.
Stewart led a deep Mission Prep team this season in scoring (12 points per game), rebounding (6.8 rebounds per game) and blocked shots, while shooting over 30 percent from 3-point range. But he had bigger goals in mind. He wanted to average a double-double and take the next step in the playoffs, but that didn’t happen.
Stewart’s face changed when he talked about the way the season ended.
The Royals had high expectations, but a loss to eventual champion Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs ended the season. Last year, his team lost in the finals. The year before that, the semifinals.
“It’s tough, obviously,” Stewart said. “Two years in a row to be that close. Three years, really. I thought we had a good chance.”
Stewart puts much of the blame for the final loss on himself.
“I should have focused more, made sure everyone was ready,” Stewart said.
Harris said Stewart’s reaction after losses showed the type of leader he became in his junior year. Stewart said it was a challenge to step in and replace the void left by last year’s leading scorer and Tribune County Player of the Year, Quinton Adlesh, after he left to play at Columbia University — and not just in the stat sheet.
“I’m not huge into role models and stuff like that,” Stewart said. “I have some favorite (professional) players, but I never try to model my game off of that. I’ve had some good role models in my life, like my brothers and my dad, some friends like Quinton who taught me how to be a good player and a good leader on and off the floor.”
Stewart’s father Robert, a 6-foot-5 pitcher, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977 and played in the minor leagues for eight years. His five older brothers and sisters played volleyball, football and basketball in college. Their personalities and athletic backgrounds helped shape who he is.
“Growing up, they have always pushed me, and I have always grown up going to tons of games,” Stewart said, adding that he watched his brothers play against Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony in high school.
“It was given that I was going to play basketball.”
Stewart, the youngest of six, remains close with his family, even though a large age difference makes him feel like an only child at times. A few days before we spoke in the gym, Stewart was in Ecuador with his brother Kasey, part of a trip with Book and A Ball, a non-profit co-founded by Kasey. The charity’s goal is to provide sports equipment and reading material to children in orphanages around the world.
“I have a love for that, just helping out other people,” Stewart said.
Kyle and his brother, 26, went to three orphanages in Ecuador and gave children soccer balls and bibles.
“It was really cool,” Stewart said. “It changes the way you see stuff. You take things here for granted, just simple things. They don’t have anything. They have toys, but none of it is theirs. They never had anything to themselves so it was cool to give them something that had their name on it.”
Next trip, Kyle hopes the charity can hand out basketballs instead.
Stewart said writing down his goals is important, and next year they will be similar to this year: win a league championship, win a CIF title, and expand his game with the goal of playing in college. He said a few colleges are looking at him but he expects to talk with more coaches as the AAU season gets underway.
“This is where the process has to start rolling,” Stewart said. “I just think it will all kind of fall into place how it should. I think things are supposed to happen for a reason.”
Stewart has a smooth shot that got rolling more than once this season. He hit it from inside and out, off the dribble and on catch-and-shoots. But it does have a quirk — just as he releases the shot, he closes his eyes. He doesn’t worry much about that, but said he still has plenty of improvements to make.
“I really want to work on my ball handling because I want to start bringing the ball up the court more, and I think overall it will help me,” Stewart said. He even joked with Harris that he is going to play point guard next season.
Not likely, but no matter what position he plays, its doubtful that Stewart will lose his edge — or his proclivity for giving.
Players of the Year
2016 Kyle Stewart, Mission Prep, Junior
2015 Quinton Adlesh, Mission Prep, Senior
2014 Robbie Berwick, Atascadero, Senior
2013 Robbie Berwick, Atascadero, Junior
2012 Brent VanderVeen, Arroyo Grande, Senior
2011 Troy Norris, Atascadero, Senior
2010 Troy Norris, Atascadero, Junior
2009 Julian Demalleville, San Luis Obispo, Senior
2008 Dylan Royer, Morro Bay, Senior
2007 Dominique Saunders, Nipomo, Senior
2006 Derrick Jasper, Paso Robles, Senior
2005 Derrick Jasper, Paso Robles, Junior
2004 Mecklen Davis, Atascadero, Senior
2003 Mecklen Davis, Atascadero, Junior
2002 Carlton Wilder, Paso Robles, Senior
2001 Phillip Johnson, Arroyo Grande, Senior
2000 Phillip Johnson, Arroyo Grande, Junior
1999 Jonathan Bentley, Atascadero, Senior
1998 Ray Robins, Paso Robles, Senior
1997 Ray Robins, Paso Robles, Junior
1996 Gary Gillman, Morro Bay, Senior
1995 Ross Ketcham, Mission Prep, Senior
1994 Jabbar Clark, Paso Robles, Senior
1993 Jeremiah Cathey, Paso Robles, Senior
1992 Dwain Davis, Atascadero, Senior
1991 Jared Lintner, Arroyo Grande, Senior
1990 Tim Kubinski, San Luis Obispo, Senior
1989 Tim Kubinski, San Luis Obispo, Junior
1988 Beni Fernandez, Paso Robles, Junior
1987 James Morgan, Paso Robles, Senior
Ed Mitchell, Atascadero, Senior
1986 Pete DelVaglio, San Luis Obispo, Senior
1985 Lonzo Davis, Paso Robles, Senior
Chris Hoerntlein, Arroyo Grande, Senior
1984 Adam Grosz, San Luis Obispo, Senior
1983 Aaron Paulsen, Arroyo Grande, Senior
Bruce Baker, Arroyo Grande, Senior
1982 Eric Hansen, San Luis Obispo, Senior
1981 John Graham, Morro Bay, Senior