Antelope High School's boys basketball team is entering its fourth varsity season.
But after playing in the past two Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship games, winning last season's title during an impressive 30-2 campaign, the No. 6 Titans are already playing with the big boys.
They've played in the showcase NorCal Tip-Off Classic (beating McClymonds of Oakland) on Nov. 24 and the Gridley Invitational (losing to Fresno power Bullard and No. 4 Sacramento High while beating host Gridley) earlier this month.
At the end of December, the Titans will play in the Maxpreps.com Holiday Classic in Palm Springs, which features some of the nation's top teams.
But even with returning Bee All-Metro big men Gabe Bealer (second team) and Isaiah Ellis (honorable mention), the No. 6 Titans are still a work in progress.
So getting to face some top local competition in their own upgraded Titan Holiday Classic this weekend was a huge confidence boost for coach Rob Richards and his players.
Antelope (5-2) capped its three-game, three-day sweep with a 60-44 win over No. 9 Del Oro (7-2) in Saturday's final, winning its tournament a third consecutive season. Friday, Antelope defeated No. 5 Burbank 58-46.
Against Del Oro, the 6-foot-5 Bealer earned all-tournament honors with a game-high 22 points and the 6-6 Ellis had five points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in being named tourney MVP.
All-tourney selections Trevor Pistochini and Finney Keenan had 10 points each for Del Oro.
While Bealer and Ellis are being pursued by a number of college programs, Richards is trying to replace graduated guards Jarvis Watkins, Kei'Shaun Sinclair and Caleb King.
"Right now we really have to find a new identity for ourselves," Richards said. "We are a different team than last year. You lose three three-year starting guards with the run we had, and it's a challenge."
Stepping in their place are seniors Tyler Winston, a highly recruited football player, Rashard Thornhill and sophomore Mister Harriel.
Thornhill averaged 3.7 points as a reserve last season; Winston missed all of 2011-12 with a football injury; and Harriel played on the junior varsity team.
"I think right now we're missing that experience," said Ellis, the team's only three-year varsity player and a standout football player, too. "But they're all good players."
Last season Richards relied heavily on his five starters. This year he is going deeper down his bench.
"Last year we'd usually have five starters in double figures," Richards said. "This year Gabe is going to average 20 points, Isaiah is going to give me a double double. It's what I get from the others that determines how we do."
While Winston played superlative defense, he struggled with his shooting (one of seven from the floor), but Harriel provided a spark off the bench with seven points and also earned all-tournament honors.
"He's playing really, really well," Richards said of Harriel. "He's got the talent, the athleticism."