Every so often, John DePonte will reach for the medallion.
The Pleasant Grove High School basketball coach will study it or show his team. Hard-earned victories are to be treasured, DePonte reminds his players, and that message carries into Saturday when the upstart Eagles face their tallest test yet in a season of near misses.
Pleasant Grove takes on Deer Valley of Antioch, which is led by 6-foot-10 center Marcus Lee, a McDonald's All-American headed for the University of Kentucky on scholarship, in the CIF Northern California Division I championship.
The winning team will be presented medals at Sleep Train Arena that will serve as memories to last a lifetime.
DePonte's medal belonged to his father, Norman DePonte, a high school All-American from Hawaii in the late 1950s. The medal was the result of a territorial championship in 1959, the year Hawaii became the 50th state. Norman DePonte was a ballhandling guard who played at the University of Hawaii and years later scored 63 points in a men's league. He died in 1997 at 56.
"He's my everything," said John DePonte, who in the 1980s also played guard as a prep in Hawaii. "He's the man I idolized on and off the court, who I owe much of who I am.
"Last time he saw me coach was in 1997 when I was at Jackman Middle School (in south Sacramento). We were at a restaurant, the creamer container, salt and pepper shakers in front of us, drawing up plays. Special."
That's the same word DePonte uses in describing his team this season. He said it takes a special resolve to bounce back from agonizing losses.
Sheldon edged Pleasant Grove twice to win the Delta River League and then 60-57 on March 2 to win the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship at Sleep Train. Sheldon plays Archbishop Mitty of San Jose in the Open Division.
"We've been through a number of battles, with a lot of experiences to draw from, and the guys haven't had any panic," DePonte said. "But we still don't have a title to show for it. That's something I really want for these kids. The boys are hungry."
Pleasant Grove (26-6) is led by what the Eagles call "The Big Three" - three-year varsity starters in guards Malik Thames and Matt Hayes, and forward Cole Nordquist. Each has had big moments this season - from buzzer-beating shots to critical defensive stops.
The starting lineup is rounded out by senior forward Matt Smrekar and 6-6 sophomore center Marquese Chriss. Senior James Watson, a defensive stopper, also stood out in Pleasant Grove's 68-51 NorCal semifinal rout of traditional power De La Salle of Concord.
"I've seen our 'Big Three' grow," DePonte said. "I'm very proud of them. Seen them grow into young men on campus, on road trips, in games, how they conduct themselves, how they play the game the right way. They're kids, but they're older, with a little more facial hair."
And it's a confident group.
"That confidence comes from the trust we have in each other," Thames said. "We know what we're doing out there. And the Sheldon losses hurt, but they made us stronger, made us more motivated. We want to win more than sections."
Thames, like his coach, comes from a sports background. His parents - Ray and Angie - were high school basketball players in Stockton, and older brother Xavier is a starting guard at San Diego State. Perhaps the loudest family member at Pleasant Grove games is Thames' grandmother, Virginia Gross.
She pleaded for a big effort from her grandson during a section semifinal game at Sleep Train against Bella Vista, on her birthday, and got it. The Eagles won 68-60 with Thames scoring 23. She requested another good show against De La Salle, and she got it. Thames went for 31.
"I can hear her in the stands, 'Way to go, Lik!' " Thames said. "You always want to do well for family."
DePonte can relate. That's why he'll always embrace his father's medallion.