ANAHEIM — Trading their hoses and protective jackets for an orange ball and athletic uniforms, the Santa Monica Fire Department gave it their all, bringing home the gold in basketball during the California Firefighter Olympics, held in Anaheim last week.
This is the fourth year SMFD has competed — and the first year they’ve medaled at all. Players attributed their success to hard work in the “off-season,” a great support network and the efforts of team members.
“We played in some rec leagues on our days off,” firefighter Nick Jones said. “That helped us get more familiar with playing with each other.
“For a small department we were well represented by our families, and off-duty members also came out to support us,” he continued. “It stood out compared to a lot of the other departments.”
Engineer Dan Caldwell pointed to the coaching skills of Jones and firefighter Ryan Demirdjian.
“They did a good job utilizing subs and calling time-outs at the right time,” he said.
Players said Demirdjian and Matt Hill, another firefighter, stood out as clear MVPs, particularly during a game against Sacramento that went to double overtime.
“Demirdjian was injured during that game, but he was able to come back and help us win — practically on one leg,” Jones said.
This was the first year both star players were able to compete.
“Demirdjian made an amazing three point shot, with two people fouling him, to keep us in the game,” added firefighter Justin Crosson. “We were the underdogs, but we went undefeated.”
Hill followed with a similar shot, Caldwell said.
Free throws by firefighter Tony Barbi, one of two big men on the team, were also clutch in the Sacramento game as the seconds dwindled.
“I had been missing every single free throw, and I’m normally not that bad,” he said. “It was funny — everyone thought I was going to miss.”
Barbi said it wasn’t the competition that made the Sacramento game so close.
“We were playing our worst,” he said. “I don’t think the opponent was that much better.”
The championship game against Long Beach was not as intense — SMFD set the tone from the beginning of the game, scoring three-point shots in each of their first three possessions and never losing the lead.
Of nearly 20 teams competing last Tuesday through Friday, only SMFD kept a perfect record, beating Oakland, Richmond, Garden Grove and Pasadena in addition to Sacramento and Long Beach.
SMFD’s team was on the younger side, Jones said, with most players in their early-20s to mid-30s. Some played basketball in high school or college.
“But it’s been a while, you know?” Jones laughed.
The team consisted of 11 members — Jones, Caldwell, Hill, Barbi, Crosson, Demirdjian, Captain Jason Wells and firefighters Bryce Johnson, Ryan DeMamiel, Matt Bailey and Ryan Shook.
Most players agreed that the team would try to defend their title next year, but there are other options.
“Maybe we’ll revamp our softball team and not play basketball,” Barbi said. “Let’s go out on top.”