John DePonte sizes up his team and sees the makings of a championship contender.
His veteran players agree.
With three core three-year starters at the helm for their calm coach, Pleasant Grove High School aims to make this a season to remember. And if Wednesday night offered even a glimpse of that hope, the Eagles should expect a long postseason run.
With ballhandlers, shooters, runners and rebounders, the third-ranked Eagles beat host Franklin 68-45 in a nonleague contest.
Guards Malik Thames and Matt Hayes lead one of the Sac-Joaquin Section's top backcourts, and fellow three-year varsity senior Cole Nord-quist is among the region's top shooters.
Thames had 22 points on an array of twisting drives, runners and jumpers. He also played hawking defense for the Eagles (11-3), whose only local loss was to Sacramento.
The 6-foot Hayes scored 15, and the 6-3 Nordquist had 11.
"That's what we're hoping cash in on this experience," said DePonte, whose team went 24-7 last season in finishing a competitive third in the Delta River League behind Sheldon and Jesuit, teams that met in the section Division I and Northern California large-school finals. "Our big three of Hayes, Nordquist and Thames has a lot of experience. If the guys around them can step up ."
The sky's the limit.
Marquese Chriss, a 6-6 junior post, dunked off the opening tip and had 10 points as he continues to settle into a starting role for Pleasant Grove. He's joined by fellow 6-6 post Thomas Fitzgerald.
Eagles senior forward Matt Smrekar was a contributor last season who has emerged as a reliable starter this winter. He had four points, but his primary role is to grab rebounds, clog the lane and issue screeching-halt screens.
Thames' brother is San Diego State starting guard Xavier Thames, a former Pleasant Grove star. They talk to each other daily, often about leadership.
"We've got a group of guys this year, and we know we can be pretty good," Malik Thames said. "A lot of people look at (Bee No. 1) Sheldon as the (Delta River League) champs, and we have a chip on our shoulder. If we win league, we wouldn't be surprised. We can be pretty good."
Thames said he's grown as a player and young man since his sophomore season, when he was learning on the fly.
"I've become a better leader, and I know I have to get my teammates involved, and I have to set an example on how I play pressure defense, get steals," Thames said. "We all have to do this together."
Meanwhile, four-time defending Delta Valley Conference champion Franklin (6-8) has as young a team as seventh-year coach Jesse Formaker has fielded. Typical of the Wildcats, they competed even though outmatched Wednesday. Benson Osayande, a 6-6 junior, had 12 points, and John Moscoso, a 5-9 junior guard, had nine.