For the last two years many of us in the California prep sports writing community have waxed on about faults in the Open Division format, and the need for changes after the two-year period of using this system will now be over.
While there may be faults and things needing correcting, the one thing that can’t be argued is the current format has opened the doors for some new teams, and in the case of the Drake (San Anselmo) boys and Justin-Siena (Napa) girls, teams now returning after long absences.
The Cal-Hi Sports Caravan stopped by the Drake gym on Monday afternoon where veteran head coach Doug Donnellan was about to put his young team through the paces in preparation for its CIF Division III state championship title tilt with Southern Regional top-seeded D3 champion Chaminade of West Hills.
This year, the Open Division opened up opportunities for additional teams from the North Coast Section to get into the D3 NorCals with NCS Division III champion Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) and runner-up El Cerrito going to the Open Division. To replace those two teams, quarterfinal losers Drake and Orinda Miramonte made NorCals due to being the NCS D3 No. 4 and No. 6 seeds respectively, the highest seeds of the quarterfinalists.
The Lafayette Acalanes team that beat Drake and fellow semifinalist Moraga Campolindo were in at No. 6 and 2 seed respectively, while Drake snagged the ninth seed. Nobody expected the Marin County Athletic League regular season champion to make much noise, but if you go back to the Crusader Classic at San Francisco Riordan to start the season, it’s not hard to see why Drake will be in a state championship game for the first time in 20 years.
The Pirates only went 2-2 in the tournament, opening with El Cerrito, but they only lost by 14 points. After a win over Berkeley St. Mary’s they lost a 51-50 heartbreaker to host Riordan, the same Riordan team they defeated 54-49 in the Northern Regional title game. The stage had been set.
To get to Riordan last Saturday, they put on around 600 miles with a road trip to Redding Enterprise and then to top-seeded Sacred Heart Cathedral (San Francisco) where they shocked the hosts with a 69-60 upset.
From there, they got a home game with No. 12 seed Miramonte and posted a 70-61 victory.
“After all the travel getting that home game versus Miramonte was huge. We packed the house,” said Donnellan, who goes into the state title game with a 418-236 coaching record beginning with the 1992-1993 season.
In the Miramonte game, it was junior guard Malik Huff with four early three-pointers that ignited things. Jesse Hunt, a 6-foot-6 junior forward led the way with 25 points while Huff finished with 17. In the previous game against top-seeded Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hunt went for a career-high 38 points with 10 rebounds and four blocks.
In the Riordan victory another junior, 6-5 forward Jasper Verduin, led the way with 23 points and eight rebounds.
“Its been a different star each game,” Donnellan remarked.
Jasper Verduin, Malik Huff and Jesse Hunt have all come up bug for Drake in the playoffs.
Do the kids know the history?
“Oh gosh yes. They know all about the tradition. The kids love it. its crazy how much they enjoy it,” said Donnellan who is now 2-1 in Northern Regional title games. Last year’s team lost to Sacred Heart Cathedral, while the 1994 team beat Vanden (Travis AFB) before losing to San Diego Lincoln in the Division IV state championship.
But that is only the recent history.
Legendary Drake Coach Pete Hayward hasn’t come to any games this year after rarely missing a home game since Donnellan took over for his mentor 22 years ago.
“His wife Mary Lou came to every game this season but he gets too nervous. His stomach turns,” Donnellan said and then added with a smile. “But he’s coming to state.”
Hayward knows a little about state, as does current assistant coach and Jesse’s father Dan Hunt. Hayward was the head coach and Hunt was a player on the 1982 team that won the Division II state championship in the first year the state championships were re-started for more than just Division I. The girls won that year as well.
Basking in the glory
The young Drake team is going to be a decided underdog against Chaminade and its huge front line, but it really doesn’t matter. To beat the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds and win a NorCal title is something the Drake boys will never forget and something that can never be taken away from them.
“We don’t know much specific about them other than they have a kid 6-10 and a kid 6-8, so it will definitely be a good challenge,” Hunt told Cal-Hi Sports.
“Today (Monday) at school everyone was coming up to us and saying ‘Wow, you guys won the NorCal championship,'” Hunt said. “I keep pinching myself to wake up but I’m awake. It’s a great feeling.”
Imagine what that feeling will be like if Drake pulls off the biggest upset of all.
Justin-Siena not backing down
Another Cinderella story comes out of the Wine Country. On Tuesday, the Cal-Hi Sports Caravan went over the Carneros Highway to Napa to watch the Justin-Siena girls practice in preparation for their Division IV state title game on Saturday morning with Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth.
“We’re smart people. We recognize that without the Open Division we wouldn’t be getting this opportunity, but we’ve earned the chance and the kids are excited about the opportunity,” said 12-year head coach Mike Boles, who’s also a 34-year management employee at Pacific Gas & Electric.
“Last Saturday was a real big deal to the girls,” continued Boles about the NorCal Division IV 47-26 victory over an Arcata team that had beaten the Braves 49-45 early in the season.
The senior duo of Haley Cremen and Sadie Irvine came up big on both offense and defense. The 5-foot-10 Cremen had 15 points, six rebounds and four assists. Irvine, a 5-8 guard had 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and three assists.
The real upset came in the semifinals in a 81-68 road win at a Scotts Valley team that had a CIF Central Coast Section Open Division win over five-time state champion and Northern Regional Division II champion Archbishop Mitty on its resume. In that game the dynamic duo came up huge.
Irvine had 28 points, nine steals, seven rebounds and three assists. Cremen had 27 points.
“At school there were a lot of people that never come to games coming up to us and congratulating us and telling us they want to come to the game. School spirit is really up,” Cremen said.
Sadie Irvine and Haley Cremen have carried the load for Justin-Siena this season.
The Deely factor
If they’re anything like their assistant coach Vicky Deely, these girls will fighting hard against the girls from Southern California. Deely, who was a four-year starter at UC Davis and now works in the wine industry, scored 2,480 points and pulled down 1,167 rebounds, and was one the greatest and hard-nosed players to ever come out of the Redwood Empire. She finished her career by leading Justin-Siena to the 2008 Northern Regional Division IV championship where they fell 65-60 in overtime to eventual state champion St. Patrick St. Vincent of Vallejo.
Having Deely on the bench will be a big help.
“Growing up I watched her and now she’s been a great role model for us,” Cremen told Cal-Hi Sports. “She’s been through what we’ve been going through and she knows how hard we’ve worked to get what we want to achieve.”
Almost three decade absence
Although Justin-Siena will be making its second appearance in a state title game, its been 29-years since the Braves suffered a heartbreaking 59-57 overtime loss to Woodlake in the Division III state championship.
And what do they know about Sierra Canyon?
“We just know they’re quick, really aggressive and like to trap,” Irvine remarked.
Just like the Drake boys, Justin-Siena will be a huge underdog, but win or lose no one can ever take the memories away from them, or the fact they are Northern California champions.
“Its right up there. They know all about it,” said Boles pointing to the banner on the wall honoring the 1985 NorCal champions, and in response to whether the girls know of the program’s history. “Its been six years since we lost that OT game to St. Pats, and these girls aren’t backing down from anyone.”
And its been 29-years since the OT loss to Woodlake, but at 10 a.m on a Saturday morning anything can happen.
“Its all come together since the beginning of the playoffs,” Boles reflected. “If ever there was a time to peak we’re peaking.”
With a win over Sierra Canyon they go to the top of the tallest peak.