The competition runs so deep with this group they even compare kudos.
When the Pleasant Grove High School boys basketball players arrived at the Elk Grove campus Monday morning, they were greeted by student-painted signs congratulating them for their CIF Northern California Regional Division I championship. After parading across campus like unsuspecting celebrities, the players gathered in the gym for a light shootaround, taking it easy on their weary bodies.
Pleasant Grove, the only boys or girls team in the 197-member Sac-Joaquin Section playing for a state title this weekend at Sleep Train Arena, is a home-grown neighborhood public school excelling in a championship event that has been dominated by private schools. The Eagles are attempting to become the first team in the section to win a large-school state championship.
"I'm getting a lot of high-fives from students and teachers," senior guard Malik Thames said with a grin.
Senior forward Cole Nordquist nodded - then one-upped Thames.
"High-fives?," Nordquist said. "I'm getting hugs."
The basketball team's rise from modest beginnings, just like the school itself, is a hot topic on the 2,500-student campus. A group of seven students playing music in the quad talked about today's after-school rally and packing into one of four buses for tonight's Division I championship game against Santa Monica High.
And basketball has become a popular topic in math classes, too. Math teacher John DePonte's also the basketball coach, and crunching numbers is his passion. Next door, Lisa Bjorgum's math and advocacy classes talk about the team, too. She has chronicled the Eagles' season with press clippings on her wall.
"What a fun team," Bjorgum said. "It's so nice to talk basketball. The teacher support here shows that we care about them. And they in turn show that they care about my class."
Bjorgum doesn't miss games. Neither does Joanne Nomura, an instructional aide. Or Jeff Platt, the activities director. Or Hank Meyer, the principal. All come to games decked in school red and blue.
"As soon as we won the other day," Bjorgum said, "I asked my mother-in-law if she could baby-sit so my husband and I can go. Can't miss this game."
Meyer knows from experience how difficult it is for a team to get this far. He coached Jesuit when the Marauders won Northern California Division I titles in 1993 and 1994. The joy he experienced those years has been topped by his experiences at Pleasant Grove, where he doesn't just mentor a group of 12 players - he oversees a campus with a bigger population than most small towns.
"I had my day in the sun as a coach and it was a great time," Meyer said. "This has been a nice transition. I really enjoy Pleasant Grove.
... We have our problems like any school, but it's rare here."
At Pleasant Grove, success isn't limited to athletics.
On the day the Eagles won the NorCal title, the school's Science Olympiad, led by physics teacher Jon Wehner, qualified for a state tournament. The school's robotics competition team anticipates another national placement under industrial technology instructor Michael "Buck" Young.
And Pleasant Grove's 2012 Academic Performance Index is 857, the highest of the nine high schools in the Elk Grove Unified School District.
"That's what I'm most impressed with," DePonte, the basketball coach, said. "We have good students on this team, and they balance it with a tough academic load. That's not easy to do. You have some teams where you're ready for the season to end. It's tiring. Not this team. We don't want it to end. They're a joy."
All this from a school so new - it opened in 2005 - the trees aren't tall enough or nearly broad enough to provide shade. It's a clean campus, too, thanks to that pride - and receptacles seemingly every 12 feet.
"People like this school," said Thames, the team's floor leader. "Everyone is really friendly. Everyone says hello. Everyone supports one another."
Basketball success isn't new to this city, either.
In 1975, Elk Grove High featured the region's greatest basketball player in Bill Cartwright, a 7-footer who later led USF to a national No. 1 ranking in 1977 and won three NBA championships in the early 1990s with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Cartwright's legacy as a high school player helped lead to the creation of the state basketball tournament, which began in 1981 and has been held at the home of the Kings since 1991.
When Cartwright played, Elk Grove was the only high school in the district. And Elk Grove was just a small dot on Highway 99, an unincorparted 'burb with 4,200 residents. It's now up to about 160,000.
The district, which includes all of Elk Grove and stretches north into south Sacramento and east to Rancho Murieta, grew just as dramatically. In addition to the nine high schools, it also has nine middle schools, 39 elementary schools and about 62,000 total students.
"The economy impacted us and we've finally slowed down with the growth," said Jim Smrekar, the school district's athletic director. "It's given us a chance to slow down as a district, to breathe and settle down without having to open another school every year, which is what was happening."
Smrekar, who coached varsity basketball at Valley and Florin, has a deep, emotional investment in the Pleasant Grove team.
His son Matt is a rugged 6-foot-3 senior forward who was decked by an elbow early in the NorCal title game against Deer Valley of Antioch. Dad nearly jumped out of his skin, but Matt jumped up and was ready for more.
Father and son embraced after the game, and cried.
"Words can hardly describe how I felt," Jim Smrekar said. "To see how hard he has worked and to enjoy this ..."
Said Matt Smrekar: "That hug was a special moment, the highlight of my night and career. It was good to cry. He knows what this means to us."