Facing long odds but hardly short of confidence, the Pleasant Grove Eagles are proving to be one stubborn out.
The Division I girls basketball team from Elk Grove represents the lowest seed remaining at 11th in the CIF Northern California Regional playoffs at both genders. That’s 12 divisions and more regional road victories than anyone dare project.
The journey takes the Eagles (24-9) to the D-I championship game Saturday at Sleep Train Arena against three-time defending champion Berkeley – winner of six NorCal titles since 2006 and a record 12 overall. But at least the arena is a relatively close trip compared to NorCal treks to Oakland, Santa Clara and Danville, where the Eagles topped higher seeds McClymonds (45-43), Wilcox (37-35) and Monte Vista (56-54 in overtime).
“It was, ‘Order the sandwiches, pack the vans and get ready to play and see what we can do,’ ” Pleasant Grove coach James McKeever said of his team’s postseason outlook. “No one really expected us to be here, and honestly, I probably didn’t expect this at the beginning of the year, so it’s like playing with house money, and we’re going to game it all and see how the chips fall.”
Pleasant Grove placed second to Oak Ridge in the Delta River League, then lost to the Trojans in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals. But the Eagles are now the lone area girls team still standing.
Balanced scoring and late stops have been the key. Against Monte Vista, Aaliyah Pena scored 15 points, Patricia Castrence added 12, and Brittany Nguyen and Kim Schmelz had 11 each.
McKeever conceded he’s had more talented teams since he started the program from scratch in 2005, but none with this sort of fight. The Eagles are also inspired by the Pleasant Grove boys team of last season. Those Eagles didn’t win a league or a section title but emerged as D-I NorCal and state champions.
Bulldogs rally – Playing uncharacteristically tight, the top-seeded Folsom boys trailed by double digits in the second half to Serra of San Mateo in a Division II semifinal and by nine with three minutes to play. From there, the Bulldogs settled down and took over, particularly guard Jordan Ford. The sophomore scored 19 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, and with Lukas Hendricks and Colin Russell hustling down the stretch, the Bulldogs won 58-57.
“It looked real dire, but we just willed ourselves to win,” Folsom coach Mike Wall said. “It was desperation.”
Serra’s season ended against a DRL team for the second straight year. Last year, Sheldon beat the Padres in Open Division play.
The ‘X-factor’ – Matt Muldavin often provides the hot shooting for a Cosumnes Oaks team that runs opponents off the floor. The senior guard made all four of his three-point attempts, including two in the decisive rally, in an 87-67 win over Grant in the other D-II semifinal.
“Matt’s the X-factor for us,” Cosumnes Oaks coach Patrick Roth said. “The kid has been hot.”
When he’s not scoring on the hardwood, he is in the classroom. A 4.7 student, Muldavin jokes it’s a neck-and-neck race with close friend Alex Kropp, the Cosumnes Oaks quarterback, for top-three honors in their graduating class.
Open case – Archbishop Mitty of San Jose, which beat Sheldon for the NorCal Open Division title at Sleep Train Arena last season, returned to Sacramento on Tuesday intent on bouncing this season’s Bee No. 1 team.
Capital Christian, however, was too quick and determined, prevailing 70-57 for the biggest victory in school history to set up a Saturday showdown against NorCal No. 1 Bishop O’Dowd. The Dragons are unbeaten against NorCal opponents this season and lost 63-59 to national No. 1 and defending state Open Division champion Mater Dei of Santa Ana.
Capital Christian lost to St. Joseph Notre Dame of Alameda in the NorCal D-V final a year ago and was placed in the Open this season as a three-time defending section champion with a statewide schedule.
The state finals will be held at Sleep Train Arena on March 28 and 29.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD