WATSONVILLE — Sandor Rene Rodriguez was hoisting up half court shots and trying to kick in 3-pointers, Chase Watkins was trying to throw down slams best suited for a dunk contest and the St. Francis High gym was overflowing with calls of “buckets!” And “that’s my shot, baby!”
And that was a tame day of practice.
“Right now we’re a little bit calm,” Rodriguez said. “We’re usually a little more crazy. This is just who we are.”
Head coach Ed Kelly has had a special group of players on his hands this season. They’re tightly-woven and strong like an impenetrable armor but also easy-going and loose like a Sunday breeze. They can be either or and know the right time to be one or the other.
It’s something Kelly had reservations about earlier in the season but now, 23 consecutive wins later and a chance at winning the program’s first-ever state championship on the horizon, he understands this is who they are.
“This group has been unique. This is how they flow,” Kelly said. “So I’ve tried to back off and let them do what works best for them.”
The St. Francis Sharks (29-2) will play for the California Interscholastic Federation Division V Championship on Friday at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento at noon against the Southern California regional champ, Rolling Hills Prep (28-2), of San Pedro.
The players and coaches have seen the film and will continue to watch more. They know they’ll have their hands full trying to stop the Huskies’ deadly duo of 6-foot-5 sophomore Chris Koon and 6-foot-3 junior Alex Garcia, they know that 6-foot-6 freshman J.T. Tan will pose a significant threat on the boards and they know that legendary coach Harvey Kitani, who won numerous awards and a pair of CIF State titles at Fairfax High, will have his team ready to go come Friday.
But the Sharks aren’t very nervous heading into what will be the biggest game in program history in a stadium with a capacity of 17,608. Tuesday’s practice was more reminiscent of a shootaround during the middle of their Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League season. Nothing special. No changes. Get in, get out and get ready. Oh, and crack a smile and a joke or two.
“We’re a couple of days away from a state championship and we’re loose and having fun,” said senior guard Jason Kane. “That’s what it’s been like the whole season.”
And it’s worked for them.
St. Francis is just one of 12 boy’s basketball teams still playing in California. They took every test the SCCAL had to offer and passed with flying colors, winning their first league title since the 2009-10 season. The teams in the Central Coast Section Division V playoffs were also no match, as the Sharks won all three games by double digits to claim their first section championship in seven years. And they were able to handle the NorCal’s heat, completing their journey to the CIF State Championship with a nail-biting 69-64 win over Elliot Christian, of Lodi, on Saturday.
The Sharks have seen everything. They’ve played the best their division has had to offer and they haven’t flinched. Instead, they’ve rolled up their sleeves with a competitive grin and gotten to work. They’ve kept their composure and they’ve had fun. Two things that Kelly has written up on the board in the locker room at St. Francis.
“I’d like to think that we’ve made that part of our daily routine,” said St. Francis senior wing Riley Scherr. “That’s what we do here.”
It’s part of what they call the “brotherhood,” which dates back more than a decade.
Seniors Nick Munoz, Ivo Lasich, Dominic Figueroa, Kane and Rodriguez have all gone to school together since kindergarten and have all played basketball together since their days at Notre Dame. Those five have been inseparable over the years but also inclusive, bringing in the three other seniors, Joseph Kovacs, Ruben Ibarra and Scherr, two juniors, Chase Watkins and Jason Gallo, and one sophomore, E.J. Kelly, into their “brotherhood.” There are no cliques. There’s no drama. The Sharks simply play basketball and have fun.
“We have a bond like no other,” Rodriguez said. “It just shows in practice and we’ve opened up our circle to the rest of the guys. It’s like a brotherhood.”
And it’s that “brotherhood” that has made all 11 players feel like they’ve contributed in this year’s success. The five starters — Watkins, Gallo, Figueroa, Rodriguez and Ibarra — have all had their moments in the limelight this season but the Sharks’ bench has also been vital throughout the playoffs.
Lasich, the usual sixth man, came off the pine to swish four 3-pointers and score 14 points against Argonaut in the NorCal quarterfinals. Scherr has also provided several solid stretches throughout the playoffs and hit a big 3-pointer during Saturday’s NorCal final. E.J. Kelly, coach Kelly’s son, drew a game-changing charge during a crucial time on Saturday.
They all said their confidence has come from their teammates.
“Some games it’d be pretty difficult,” Lasich said of coming off the bench. “Sometimes I’d come in and take a shot and it’d be an awful airball. I’d be like, ‘oh jeez, maybe I shouldn’t shoot for the rest of the game.’ But they’d just tell me to keep shooting. They wouldn’t let my confidence go down in any way.”
Said Scherr about his 3-pointer from Saturday’s game: “I had an open one and I was going for it. I know I can shoot. I was like, ‘we’re going to state. Now’s not the time to be timid. Pop it.’ It’s total trust and I’ve never had that experience on a team before.”
Even those who have not seen much time on the court throughout the postseason as the rotation has shortened have pride in their role.
“It’s crazy that we’re still playing basketball right now,” said Kane, who has been the life of the party on the bench with Kovacs and Munoz while also providing several key tips from the sidelines. “I’m missing a bunch of golf. A bunch of these guys are missing baseball but we wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
For Kelly, the unselfishness isn’t surprising.
“They’re selfless kids and they want to contribute any way possible,” Kelly said. “They all want to win. They don’t care who’s scoring the points. They’re just enjoying the success.”
The Sharks will make the three-hour drive to Sacramento today after school and plan to have dinner and a final video session the night before the game to fine-tune their plan.
Kelly said he doesn’t plan to give a long, in-depth speech to rally the troops in the hours leading up to Friday’s opening tip. He said that’s not this team’s style. Instead, he’ll focus on making sure his kids keep their poise on the biggest stage of high school basketball in California.
Kelly said he’s picked the brains of several coaches that have played in the state championship, including Pete Newell Jr., who led Santa Cruz to a State title in 2005. Some coaches have told him
about the importance of the first four minutes of the game. Others have mentioned how the wider court changes angles and approach. But every coach has told him one thing.
“Enjoy it and have fun with it,” Kelly said. “This is going to be a great experience and something you’ll remember forever. That’s been a common theme from all the coaches. Some of them have won it and some of them have lost it and they still say, ‘it’s one of the greatest experiences you’ll ever have. Enjoy it.’”
This group of Sharks won’t have a problem doing that.
“It’ll be a little different when we get to Sacramento and when we’re in that environment but these guys have done such a good job so far of enjoying the moment and having fun,” Kelly said. “I think they’ve done a great job of doing both of those things and I expect them to do the same on Friday.”