A year ago, there was no postseason for the Rocklin Thunder.
Instead, there was doom and despair amid the smoldering remains of a 4-24 boys basketball season.
This season, with a new coach who doubles as an old, comforting face from the program's storied past, the Thunder has made a dramatic turnaround, and the surge continued Wednesday night in Placer County.
With teamwork, smart play, hustle and an emphasis on defense, Rocklin belted Laguna Creek 62-42 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoff opener.
With upstart El Camino stunning No. 2-seeded St. Mary's of Stockton in another opener, the Thunder suddenly finds itself preparing to host another playoff game in an extended season no one dared forecast this time a year ago.
Casey Cutts is the Rocklin first-year coach who was a key guard for some of the Thunder's dominant teams under coach Steve Taylor last decade. Cutts, nervous before the game but leadership cool during it, has maintained that his group doesn't wow college recruiters with prospects, but collectively they know how to compete. And win.
"That's the great thing about high school basketball," Cutts said in a jubilant locker room. "The ultimate equalizer is team play, and we have that. We have a great group."
Rocklin (19-9) led 27-23 at the half and took control with a 10-1 third-quarter run in putting the defensive clamps on a young, though athletic Cardinals team that finished 15-13.
Devin Moss, as he has all season, was the focal point for Rocklin. The senior guard is a ball handler, facilitator and scorer. Four Moss buckets early in the fourth quarter put away Laguna as he finished with a game-high 18 points.
While Cutts heaped praise on his gritty, senior-laden lineup that includes guard Jake Faulkner and forwards Taylor Cherry (nine points), Hayden Cook and Drew Ardisson, the players in turn credited their leader for the rapid rise back to respectability. Players don't have to score to contribute, with competitors such as Faulkner and Ardisson drawing charges and collecting rebounds as an example.
"Coach did a great job in bringing the culture of success back to Rocklin basketball," Moss said. "Every practice, every drill, everything we do is to get better and to win. We know we can't slack off in basketball, in class or in the community. It's very important here. We trusted coach when this season started, and to be where we are now, is a testament to our guys."
Rocklin also stands as the last survivor of the rigorous Sierra Foothill League. Granite Bay, Del Oro and Roseville all bruised from battling each other in league play have been eliminated.
Roseville fell in an outbracket game Friday to El Camino. The Eagles (18-10) upended the Rams of Stockton 63-62 on a Sam Hudson buzzer-beater.
One playoff win isn't enough to satisfy Cutts.
"We know we have a lot more work to do," Cutts said. "It's all about the players here. They've put the work in, like to be pushed. We have great leadership. The kids know the history here. They're excited to be a part of it."