Band of Brothers: Men's Basketball Reels in 5 Gladiators

Band of Brothers: Men's Basketball Reels in 5 Gladiators
Hialeah Gardens products-turned Barry University teammates Junior Barrueta, Adrian Gonzalez, coach Marcos Molina, Alvaro Simoza and Philly Leonardo flash their 2012 state championship rings. Photo by Jim McCurdy

By Max Ramos-Paez

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- It’s a classic sporting moment: a high school basketball team filled with players who have grown up and played together, fight and win a state championship. They’ll be remembered as names on trophies and displays, but after a few years the players and their accomplishment will be relegated to simple mentions on a school website and in the memories of those who were at the school at the time.

For most high school athletes, the times they shared with their high school teammates, who become their closest friends eventually just become nostalgic memories. But for four Barry University men’s basketball players, the experience of playing with some of their buddies continues.

On Barry men’s basketball roster this year, you’ll notice something interesting: three of the freshmen, guard Henry Leonardo, forward Adrian Gonzalez and center Alvaro Simoza all played at Hialeah Gardens High in Miami, Fla. Now if you look further into the roster, you’ll discover that sophomore guard Yunio Barrueta, a transfer from East Tennessee State, also played on the same Hialeah Gardens team as the three freshmen.

For Barrueta, transferring to Barry was not a cause or effect of the other players coming to Miami Shores. Rather, it was an added bonus.

“I felt like they were going to come here regardless, but me coming here I felt like they made it a more comfortable decision,” the 6-6 guard said.

For these four players, the chance to play with a few of their closest friends is a great opportunity, and they believe it will help Barry succeed on the court.

“I find it great that we know how each other plays the game, and we feel that we can be in the core of the team,” Simoza said.

Now, these players didn’t just play together at Hialeah Gardens, they won there as well. In the 2011-12, these four players helped guide the Gladiators to the school’s first state championship in any sport, and that title came only a few years after the school had officially opened in 2009. That championship mentality is something that the four Bucs players intend on holding onto and bringing to Barry­­’s squad.

Simoza believes in his old and new teammates.

“We’re going to look out for each other, and look forward to bringing the rest of the Barry team into the Hialeah Gardens tradition on winning,” he said.

They won’t just be bringing the experience of winning a title, but also the work ethic that goes behind such a feat.

 “We know we’re going to (have to) bring a certain amount of intensity every game, in the weight room and in practice,” Leonardo admitted.

With this work ethic and championship experience, the former Gladiators feel extremely confident in themselves.

“We’re winners,” Gonzalez said with certainty. “We all won a state championship together. We’re just used to winning, and now (that) we’re in college, hopefully we can win a national title together as well.”  

In addition to playing alongside each other once again, the four players will have another familiar face on the court here at Barry. This past August, Marcos Molina was named one of Barry’s new volunteer assistant coaches. Now, Molina isn’t just any coach. He was the head coach of the championship team the players were part of at Hialeah Gardens.

“It feels great to have some of my former players here,” Molina extolled.

As the familiar face on the coach staff, Molina feels like he’s helping the four players become more acclimated with the Barry way.

“I think it’s a little easier on them to make a transition from high school to college now,” Molina said, “and I also feel like I’m helping Coach (Butch) Estes out in getting them acclimated to the routine, their new teammates and the whole college experience. It’s really exciting.”

Now just because Molina is familiar with the four players and that they’ve won a championship together, doesn’t mean he’s letting up on them.

 “I don’t know how to be easy on them, and I’m always going to push them at practice,” he proclaimed. “We have such a relationship that I don’t have to constantly be harping about the basics, so I can let them grow because they know I’ll be hard on them. And I plan on being even harder on them than I was at Hialeah Gardens.”

But being usually hard on the players doesn’t stop Molina from proudly admitting to their growth as players and as men.

“They’re a little older and more mature now, and I’m going to let them make more of their own decisions and help them out in a them-coming-to-me way, and not the other way around,” Molina said. “At Hialeah Gardens, I kind of had to guide them through things more. Now it’s about letting them turn into young men, where as in high school they were boys. So I think they’ve learned how to act, how to be student-athletes, and it’s now about letting them go make their own mistakes.”

However, Molina admits there’s more they can learn as a group.

“It’s a situation which they’re learning how to handle it (the college level), and I’m learning how to handle it (as a college coach),” he said. “And we’re going to grow and learn together.”

One thing Molina definitely doesn’t need to learn about his old players is the general ease they have had getting along and bonding with their new teammates at Barry.

“Because of the players’ participation in AAU basketball, where they would play on different teams in the summers during high school, they would play with kids from other schools, travel the whole summer, and would become very close with those kids as well,” he explained. “It helped them to learn how to not clique themselves, and to make a transition to different teams.”

This ease in transition to their new squad at Barry has been noticed by the players as well.

“We’re really close to everyone because we’re with each other every day,” Leonardo claimed.

Now they have bought into this idea of bringing the rest of the Barry team into the Hialeah Gardens “tradition of winning.” This winning mentality and championship experience gives Molina the belief that Barry will have it’s own winning mentality and experience, as he puts it, “sooner than expected.”