SAN ANTONIO — To watch Antonian boys basketball coach Rudy Bernal interact with his players at practice, or during a game, is to see someone whose influence on the young lives he touches extends far beyond the gym.
In Bernal's world, being a mentor comes with the territory when you're a high school coach. While he has a passion for coaching basketball, Bernal also relishes guiding his players and helping them develop off the court.
"I love teaching the game of basketball," Bernal said Monday. "I love seeing the guys be successful. I love making great memories, high school memories, for these kids. The more great memories they have, the better I feel because I know these kids will stay close for years to come."
Antonian, which ends the regular season with a road game against Saint Mary's Hall on Tuesday night, has had plenty to feel good about the past two years.
The Apaches won the TAPPS Class 6A state championship and finished 37-6 last season, and are 31-7 heading into Tuesday's game. Antonian has won nine straight since a 91-87 loss to Johnson, a 6A public school, on Dec. 30.
"We went into the season focusing on staying humble and knowing that the target on our back is bigger this year," junior point guard Gavino Ramos said. "The teams that we play know that we won state last year, so we're humble,
"But we're also hungrier this year than we were last season to win (state) again. It's harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top."
Bernal reached a coaching milestone on Jan. 24th when Antonian beat Austin Savio, giving him 700 career victories. It was an early birthday present for Bernal, who turns 65 on Thursday.
Bernal started his long career in 1978 at Antonian, where he was an assistant coach for two seasons. He also was an assistant at Dwight Middle School and South San West Campus in the South San Antonio ISD, before landing his first head-coaching job at Lanier in 1983.
Now 704-476 in a head-coaching career that spans more than 35 years, Bernal went 567-442 in 31 seasons at Lanier before retiring from public education after the 2013-14 school year.
Not quite ready to give up coaching altogether, Bernal returned to Antonian as an assistant coach to Charlie Boggess in August 2014.
When Boggess resigned less than a week before Christmas in 2015, Bernal took over as interim coach and was hired as the Apaches’ next coach after the season. He has gone 137-34 at Antonian and built a powerhouse in the Texas Association for Private and Parochial Schools in less than five seasons.
Bernal's program is grounded in discipline and an unwavering commitment to hard-nosed defense. Assistant coach Lou Martinez, who played for Bernal at Lanier, runs the Apaches' offense but Bernal is in charge of the defense.
"Right now we're getting better and better as a unit defensively," Bernal said. "I won't say we struggled, but we weren't as good as we are right now, and I still think we have a little bit more to grow."
Bernal's players leave no doubt that his father-like guidance on and off the court is a key factor in Antonian's success.
"He corrects us when we're wrong and he praises us when we're right," Ramos said. "He's an even better person off the court. He's very supportive of everybody on the team and their families. He's a great person and a great coach."
Post player Devin Grant, the Apaches' only senior starter, praised Bernal for his ability to motivate the team.
"He always brings a little spark to the team," Grant said. "When we're not feeling it, he has a way of waking us up. He's definitely a great coach. You can tell that he loves coaching."
A starter since his freshman season, Ramos is Antonian's leading scorer with an average of 23.1 points a game. He also averages 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.9 steals.
"He does everything well," Bernal said of Ramos.
Grant averages 10.9 points and 9.0 rebounds. All five starters average double figures in scoring.
"Devin plays great defense inside," Bernal said. "He's our inside presence and best rebounder."
The Apaches' three other starters besides Ramos and Grant are freshman guard Santiago Ochoa (13.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.2 apg), junior swingman Bryon Armstrong (15.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and junior forward Freddy Amaro (10.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
Ochoa plays on the 15-and-under Mexico National Team.
"He handles the ball well, shoots the ball well and sees the floor well," Bernal said of Ochoa. "He's a pretty good defender. Bryon rebounds, defends well. He's a leaper."
Post player Khalil Warfield, guard Thomas Martinez and swingman Dante Okpala, all seniors, are part of the rotation and see considerable playing time.
"Khalil is our best defender," Bernal said. "Thomas is shooting 56 percent from the three-point line. He's a specialist. Dante can play inside or outside, too. He's a good defender, a very steady player."
Warfield, Grant and Armstrong played on the Antonian football team that reached the state semifinals and finished 9-4 last season.
Long one of San Antonio’s most respected boys basketball coaches, Bernal woke up the echoes of Lanier’s glorious past during his 31 seasons at the inner-city school, leading the Voks to the state tournament in 2000 and 2001. Lanier made the playoffs 15 times under Bernal, including 12 of his last 15 seasons.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Bernal graduated from Lee High School in 1973.