With his team an hour away from beginning play against North County Wednesday night, Northeast's Steve Strauss knelt behind the scorer's table in the Pasadena school's gymnasium and cued the music that would accompany the pre-game layup drill and shoot-around.
The girls team still occupied the floor, but already Strauss was making a contribution.
He wasn't at his most productive over the course of the boys game, netting half his season's scoring average with 10 points against the Knights.
But the Eagles won anyway, 47-36, for their eighth victory in 10 outings, and the senior swingman is a big reason why they now sit alone atop the Class 2A Region III standings.
Northeast went 17-7 last year and made the region finals, where it was bounced by Central of Prince George's County, 72-47. Strauss, a junior in his first full season on the varsity, averaged just under 14 points a game while playing second fiddle to maestro Andy Srebroski, an All-County selection.
"Last year, there wasn't a lot of pressure on me to score, because everybody knew about Andy," Strauss said. "I would just try to complement Andy to take a little of the pressure off. But now Ifeel like I have to score more, not every point in order for the team to win, but enough to open things up for some other people."
Like muscular center Kevin Mursch, who led all scorers Wednesday with 16points, or junior guard Gene Pleyo, whose 12 points were one below his season's average.
"Last year, Andy was leading in just about everything, but our stats this year are kind of balanced. One guy's notdoing everything," said Northeast coach John Barbour. "Strauss has kind of shone, but it's been a good team effort. We've got people getting him the ball, and everyone is doing the job and producing.
"I expected he and Gene and Kevin and Craig (Everett) to do a lot of thescoring, and I thought Steve would be one of our leaders. It's not really a surprise. And he proved (last) Friday night that he's capableof exploding big if he gets his shots."
Strauss equaled two school records a week ago in a surprisingly easy 86-52 drubbing of 3A-2A League rival Southern. His 38 points tied George Harrington's mark setin 1977, and his six three-pointers matched Pleyo's feat last season.
"Those were two of my goals this year," revealed the 6-foot-3 Strauss, adding he wasn't aware of his totals until Barbour informed him in the locker room. "I was happy to achieve those goals, but I was also happy we beat Southern."
Barbour himself admitted surprise, saying, "I didn't realize he had scored that many points. I knew he hit a lot of threes, but he got some other baskets kind of quietly. I thought he probably was close to 30 points.
"A lot of teams have played man-to-man defense and played Steve tightly to take away the three-point shot. But he found the seams against Southern and got his shots off."
That was due, in no small part, to the unselfish play ofStrauss' teammates, who repeatedly fed him the ball and worked to free him for the open jumper.
"Gene Pleyo and Craig Everett and Scotty Rey do a really good job of getting me the ball when I'm hot," Strauss said. "And Matt Conaway does an excellent job of looking for me when I come off a screen. The inside players allow me to rub my man off their man. They'll set one or two screens for me."
Barbour said, "There isn't just one star here. We're team-oriented. If opponentskey on Steve, we have others who can score. I don't care who gets the credit, just as long as we get the win."
An interesting battle is being waged within the team. Strauss has 48 career three-pointers, 10 fewer than Pleyo, the school's all-time leader.
"I've got an edge over him because I have another year," said Pleyo, who also owns the Northeast record for most career assists (187). "Because he's a senior, he deserves it, as hard as he works. I'm ahead now, but if he gets the record, I'd be proud and honored for him to break it."
Strauss' marksmanship from three-point range doesn't condemn him to one-dimensional status. A case in point, Barbour says, is the Southern game.
"He scored several of his two-pointers on offensive rebounds and by taking the ball to the basket. He has other parts to his game,"Barbour said.
"I was pleased with his defense, too. He rebounded well, he had some steals, some assists. Once, he hustled back on defense, dove and tipped the ball away from behind. Other aspects of his game stood out besides the scoring."
Strauss, thinly built at 160 pounds, entered Wednesday's game averaging 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He has scored in single digits only twice all season.
"(Assistant) Coach (Peter) Pasqualini told me there will be a couple games where things won't fall for me, but to keep shooting. Sooner or later they will fall," he said. "Well, in two games nothing fell. Shots weregoing in and coming out. In those games I looked to dish inside in the second half.
"At the start of a game, I try to shoot from the outside because that would get my rhythm going. If I hit some, that means teams have to come out and play me. And if they do, I'll try to take it to the hole and get a couple fouls or look to pass off."
Pleyo, for one, doesn't mind if Strauss simply heeds Pasqualini's advice and keeps firing away.
"If Steve shoots a shot and misses, I don't even worry about it because I know the next one is going in," he said. "We have a lot of trust in each other."
"We're a very unselfish team," Strauss said. "Everyone plays as one."