The Mater Dei Monarchs cruised into town Friday in a caravan of buses packed with players, coaches, administrators, students and boosters. The non-basketball discussion included which familiar eatery to invade: the Old Spaghetti Factory on Folsom Boulevard or Joe's Crab Shack in Old Sacramento?
Tonight, in the CIF State Division I championship game, Mater Dei, a national powerhouse boys team from Santa Ana, aims to feast on the Sheldon Huskies. Sheldon plans on no such buffet.
Regardless of the outcome, history will be made at Power Balance Pavilion. Either Mater Dei becomes the first school to win nine state championships or Sheldon emerges as the Sac-Joaquin Section's first large-school champion.
Mater Dei (33-2) is ranked No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and No. 2 nationally by maxpreps.com with a lineup of college scholarship players. Sheldon (29-5) is No. 6 in the state despite being a junior-dominated crew, headed by star guards Dakarai Allen and D'Erryl Williams.
"We're the underdogs, and we like that," Sheldon coach Joey Rollings said. "We know how good Mater Dei is. We have to play our best, keep them off the boards, play our best."
The Monarchs are playing in a record 13th state title game under coach Gary McKnight, who has experienced great wins and crushing defeats in Sacramento, including an unexpected loss to Oak Ridge and future NBA player Ryan Anderson in the D-II championship game in 2005.
"We've had some great battles there won our share and lost our share," McKnight said. "I feel better knowing that Anderson was so good at Cal and made it to the NBA."
"Very good team, a very formidable opponent that is used to playing at (Power Balance) and is confident," he said.
Mater Dei returns four starters from last season's state championship team, headed by seniors Katin Reinhardt (UNLV), Xavier Johnson (Colorado) and Eli Stalzer (Colorado). Mater Dei has lost only to out-of-state powers in national tournaments.
In his 30th season at Mater Dei, McKnight is the state's winningest coach with a 925-83 record and five consecutive 30-win seasons. Mc- Knight said this week he is especially grateful for all of his success after a serious illness nearly took his life.
"I had a real scary bout with cancer 16 years ago, the asbestos cancer, and it's not a very good percentage that survive," McKnight said. "My wife (Judy) kept pushing for me to go see the doctor, and had I waited, I wouldn't have made it.
"I'm lucky. I know that. You walk out of a cancer ward, and you wonder, How am I lucky and the others weren't? I realize every day is a special day."