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  • Thursday’s high school scoreboard (03/20/14)

    Sacramento-area schools playing for CIF Northern California Regional basketball championships Saturday at Sleep Train Arena:

    •  Boys Open Division: Capital Christian vs. Bishop O’Dowd, 8 p.m.

    •  Boys Division II: Folsom vs. Cosumnes Oaks, noon

    •  Girls Division I: Pleasant Grove vs. Berkeley, 2 p.m.

Small-school underdog role suits Capital Christian

Published: Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 - 11:06 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 - 11:27 pm

Every so often, Phil Oates walks past Capital Christian boys basketball coach Devon Jones, shoots him a quick glance and says, “Hoosiers.”

Oates, a former Cougars coach, is a longtime supporter of the basketball program at the small Rosemont-area private school and assists Jones when his busy business schedule allows.

“I have to smile when Phil says that,” Jones said. “But there’s some truth to it. Looking back on the days that we used to play on carpet, this tiny school of 400 students has come a long way.”

On Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena, Capital Christian (28-3), a Division V school, will play perennial state behemoth Bishop O’Dowd (27-4) of Oakland in the second CIF Northern California Regional Open Division championship.

The small-enrollment Cougars, who have little big-stage basketball history, already have beaten the defending NorCal champion. The Cougars shocked Archbishop Mitty of San Jose 70-57 on Tuesday with a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,700 on hand at Capital Christian. Mitty beat Sheldon 70-50 in last season’s inaugural NorCal Open championship.

Even though many expected the larger-school Monarchs from the Bay Area’s power-packed West Catholic Athletic League to beat Capital Christian, the “Hoosiers” movie comparison is a little misleading. Capital Christian has been The Bee’s No. 1 team since the start of the season, and it is ranked only behind No. 1 Bishop O’Dowd in Northern California.

The Cougars beat Westchester of Los Angeles in the December MaxPreps Holiday Classic in Palm Springs. Westchester is playing USA Today No. 2 Mater Dei of Santa Ana in Saturday’s Southern California Regional Open Division final. In the MaxPreps tournament, Capital Christian also beat Etiwanda, a 67-64 double-overtime loser to Mater Dei in Tuesday’s semifinals.

Capital Christian also has two scholarship players, 6-foot-8 D.J. Wilson, headed to Michigan, and 6-6 Nifae Lealao, who will play football at Vanderbilt.

Despite that, Capital Christian sees itself as Hickory High – the little school in “Hoosiers” with a lot to prove.

There’s the 26-point loss to Bishop O’Dowd in the Martin Luther King showcase Jan. 20 at Cal. There’s the 50-36 loss in the Division V finale last season to St. Joseph Notre Dame of Alameda in the Cougars’ second trip to a NorCal final. (The Cougars lost to St. Elizabeth of Oakland 60-39 in the 2001 D-V final.)

And even though the Cougars run their multi-faceted offense through senior guards Tyler Jennings, Uchenna Iroegbu and Marcelas Perry, not one has received a Division I scholarship offer.

“We haven’t proven anything yet,” said the 6-foot Jennings, the school’s career assists leader who averages 10 points. “We’ve won three section titles in a row (all in D-V), but we haven’t won a state championship yet. All these other teams we are playing, everyone knows about them.”

Iroegbu marvels that Capital Christian is on the same stage as the powerhouse teams he once watched in NorCal and state finals at Sleep Train.

“It’s crazy to think little Capital Christian has come this far in such a short time,” said the 6-foot Iroegbu, the team’s No. 2 scorer at 10.5 points.

Even though Jones believes he has the best senior guard trio in the state, it’s that indifferent recruiting from D-I colleges that fuels the Cougars’ fire.

“It just makes us work harder,” said the 5-7 Perry, who averages 8.7 points and shares the team lead in steals. “All three of us have a chip on our shoulders, but me being the shortest, I have the biggest chip.”

Iroegbu is the youngest, smallest and least heralded of three basketball brothers.

Chuks Iroegbu starred at Franklin, then attended Washington State before transferring to City College of San Francisco, where he helped lead the Rams to a 29-2 record this season. Middle brother Ikenna played at renowned national prep power Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and is the point guard at Washington State.

“Their success is my success, and they push me to get better,” Iroegbu said. “I think, as guards at Capital, we’re a little under recruited and overlooked. But I think that’s the nature of things playing at a D-V school. That’s why we want to play against the best. If we do well, it can only help us.”

In their first year together, the players had more individual agendas, though veteran coach Terry Battenberg, in a one-year stint before Jones took over last season, got the team of mostly underclassmen to play well enough to win the school’s first Sac-Joaquin Section boys basketball title.

“I’m not going to lie,” Jennings said. “Marcelas and I weren’t the best of friends because we were battling for the same point-guard position. Now we’re so close that we’d love to do this together another four years if possible.”

Iroegbu is amazed at the maturation of the eight players remaining from that 2011-12 team. That group, which includes juniors Justice Shelton-Mosely, Nick Aibuedefe and Edward Ware, has gone a combined 80-14.

“We’re extremely close now, but as sophomores we were the complete opposite,” Iroegbu said. “There wasn’t much cohesion. Now I love my teammates. It’s been a fun ride.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson

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