No one would have blamed Pleasant Grove boys basketball coach John DePonte if he had stepped down following last season.
With a senior-dominated group of neighborhood overachievers, Pleasant Grove beat Santa Monica for the the CIF State Division I championship at Sleep Train Arena to become only the fifth area team to win a boys state basketball championship.
“It was a dream come true as far as a basketball player and basketball coach,” said DePonte, who was named The Bee’s Coach of the Year. “It left a good taste in my mouth as far as having great kids who played the game the right way. It was a storybook ending.”
But it also was an ending that had left DePonte, 43, so mentally and physically taxed he seriously considered not coming back.
DePonte has four children, ages 3 to 21, and he teaches a full load of algebra classes and is the algebra team leader at Pleasant Grove.
“I had nine toes out the door,” DePonte said. “Having a full load of classes, answering emails, dealing with parents and coaching year-round, it doesn’t let up.”
But his wife, Tammy, also a teacher, and assistant coach Bill McCoin pushed for him to return.
DePonte also felt he owed it to his three returning varsity players, including 6-foot-9 national recruit junior Marquese Chriss, to continue coaching at least a couple of more seasons.
“I wanted to give the next group my all,” DePonte said. “They are going to have a target on their back, so I want to teach them to believe in themselves and to play like champions.”
So he’s all in with a group that is a lot less experienced. The turnover-plagued Eagles have been up and down in going 4-4, including 2-2 in last week’s St. Hope Elite Classic at Sacramento High. Other than Chriss, the Eagles are still undersized but not nearly as savvy as last season’s group.
Junior guard Johann Tate, despite being 5-8, had 38 and 28 points in respective losses to Foothill of Palo Cedro and eventual tournament champion Centennial of Corona.
“Johann is going to get his, but we’ve got to be more balanced,” DePonte said. “We’re young and still figuring out how to be successful.”
DePonte expects to get help from 5-11 junior guard James Fox, a transfer from Sheldon who becomes eligible Jan. 6.
“We’ll have him in 17 days, not that I’m counting,” DePonte said with a smile Friday. “He’ll help a lot. He’s a scrappy guy on defense and very passionate.”
The Eagles will play in this week’s Holiday Hardwood Invitational in Westlake Village, opening with a rematch against Santa Monica on Thursday.
• Two-time defending champion Del Campo returns to Placer High’s 72nd annual Kendall Arnett Tournament, one of the longest-running tournaments in the state. The Cougars open against El Camino at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The other first-round games are Colfax vs. Oakmont, 5 p.m.; Union Mine vs. Nevada Union, 6:30 p.m.; Placer vs. San Juan, 8 p.m.
• Top-ranked Capital Christian is in the 24-team invitational division of the MaxPreps Classic (Thursday through Monday in Palm Springs) that includes top teams from nine states and several California powers. Capital Christian opens against Orangewood Academy of Garden Grove at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. In the non-invitational segment of the 100-team tournament, No. 4 Folsom plays Crenshaw of Los Angeles at 8 p.m. Thursday.
• Sheldon, which went 2-2 at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas last week, opens Thursday against Loyola of Los Angeles in the top-tier National Division of the 24th annual Under Armour Classic that continues through Monday in Torrey Pines. Loyola is ranked No. 4 in California by Cal-Hi Sports. In Las Vegas, Sheldon lost to defending Nevada state champion Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas 65-49 and state-ranked No. 12 Long Beach Poly 70-53 before rebounding to beat Durango of Las Vegas 64-62 and Central Catholic of Portland, Ore., 58-53.
THE BEE’S TOP 20
|1. Capital Christian||10-1||1|
|6. Cosumnes Oaks||9-1||6|
|8. Del Oro||9-1||10|
|11. Del Campo||9-2||11|
|12. Rio Americano||7-2||12|
|15. Monterey Trail||9-3||17|
|16. Pleasant Grove||4-4||8|
|17. Granite Bay||6-4||18|