But the Plainview-Elgin-Millville senior has turned into one of the most indispensable members of the Bulldogs’ 12-2 squad.
P-E-M won its first Three Rivers Conference, West Division championship in seven years thanks to its lock-down defense, an explosive offense and one other X-factor.
Enter Villanueva. He’s the ringleader of the P-E-M bench that is loud from start to finish. They have all the chants down.
“I don’t get a lot of minutes so it’s fun to watch my friends go out there and play the game that they love,” Villanueva said. “It helps that we’re doing really well this year. That helps the bench get motivated and helps them get motivated, too. We help each other.”
They’ll start chanting, “Yeah, yeah,” while the Bulldogs are on defense with the hopes of forcing their opponents into mistakes. Or they’ll go with the famous, “Dribble, dribble, pass” chant. Plenty of others are in the mix, too.
“I have a loud voice, and I like to be loud,” Villanueva said. “As soon as I started to do it, everyone else started to do it, too. As we started to win games, everyone bought into it. Now, it’s a tradition. We do it every game.”
It’s certainly helping. P-E-M’s defense suffocated St. Charles star Kooper Vaughn and held him to fewer than 20 points. They bottled up Chatfield’s all-time leading scorer Reid Johnson, too. Part of the credit has to go to the defensive game plan and the execution from elite defenders like Conner Schumacher and Peyton Schumacher, but the bench breathes life into the Bulldogs with their energy and juice.
“Conner Schumacher always tells us that he needs the bench to be loud and we always have his back,” Villanueva said. “We just try to be loud right off the bat and help them.”
The energy was really ramped up for P-E-M’s 72-58 victory against a really good Lewiston-Altura team on Feb. 23. Both benches were getting louder and louder, trying to outdo the other.
They have to manufacture their own energy this year because the number of fans allowed in gyms is severely limited. The Three Rivers Conference is not allowing any opposing fans to be in attendance.
“They’ve been that way all year,” P-E-M coach Jason Herber said. “There are guys that literally know they’re not going to play one second, but they are all-in, all the time. They’re out there cheering for one another. They’ve been going crazy all year long so that’s so fun.”
Villanueva didn’t get involved in basketball because he wanted to be the star player. He just wanted to be with his friends. The eight P-E-M seniors all have a role. Conner Schumacher is one of the best two-way guards in the Three Rivers. Blake Herber is an electric scorer who will likely be named All-Three Rivers Conference. Luke Stevens is a valuable starter who patrols the paint. Julian Heppner, Christian Tentis, Kyler Bade, Brock Martinez and Villanueva are the leaders of the bench mob.
“These guys are my guys,” Villanueva said. “We’ve been best friends since fourth grade. I’m not very good at basketball, but I went out just because of them. I wanted to be with them. I love hanging out with them and being with them every day at practice. They mean a lot to me.”
They boost morale. They create energy in quiet, lonely gyms that were jam-packed a year ago.
“It’s so nice to have fun,” Villanueva said. “A lot of teams sometimes don’t look like they’re having much fun. I’m doing my research. There’s definitely going to be something spicy for the playoffs.”