Long before Vance Walberg became a basketball coaching guru and the subject of a recent Sports Illustrated article, he was the varsity coach at Clovis West High School in Fresno.
That's where he started refining his up-tempo Dribble Drive Motion offense and full-court pressure defenses, concepts that are spreading like wildfire among pro, college and high school teams.
And that's also where Steve Taylor developed his coaching chops.
The Bee's Boys Basketball Coach of the Year was a varsity assistant to Walberg in 1989, then was the head coach at Fresno High for three seasons.
"It was a great place to learn to coach," said Taylor, who also worked under current Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland at Clovis West.
It was no surprise that Taylor, 45, would become a high school basketball coach.
He watched his father coach the sport at Penryn Elementary School, then was a standout player at Roseville High under legendary coach Paul Gonzalez.
All that experience laid the groundwork for becoming the first and only boys coach at Rocklin High, which opened in 1994. He quickly established a reputation for success.
The Thunder has made 10 consecutive postseason appearances, won two section titles and reached a third.
But this year's group ranks as the school's finest. The Thunder finished 30-3, won the Sierra Foothill League, won the D-II section title and lost on a buzzer-beater to Fairfield in the NorCal semifinals.
The performance surprised many. The Thunder was expected to slip a little after losing to Jesuit in back-to-back seasons in the D-II section semifinals.
Although 6-foot-10 junior Brendan Lane returned, the Thunder had four new starters and struggled during summer league games and tournaments.
But Taylor wasn't surprised. He has developed a system of keeping his varsity teams well stocked, sometimes with as many as 18 players. But it can take awhile for the chemistry to develop, especially with 12 of his players this past season competing in two or three sports at the school.
"I think that was a fair assessment," he said of the skeptics. "We didn't have a very successful summer, probably around .500. But we were fragmented because guys were gone for one reason or another. We depend on so many multisport athletes that we we rarely had everyone there for those games.
"But I think that worked to our advantage. It helped create some depth and some experience."
Taylor also didn't have burned-out athletes when the regular season started in November.
"They were excited when basketball started," Taylor said. "This also wasn't a group that you had to push real hard. When we did push, they went. But most of the time they went without have to be pushed."
They also brought a winning attitude from the numerous other successful sports programs at the school.
"People commented a lot about how cool we were in handling pressure," Taylor said. "There never was a panic about our team. And I believe that was because of the number of pressure situations they were involved in with their other sports."
Although Taylor still puts in countless hours - he had the flue throughout most of the playoffs - he said he has better learned how to manage his time. He said having veteran coaches, led by varsity assistant Rob Ferraro and head JV coach Mark Gordon, helps immensely. They now handle a lot of the offseason commitments.
It has enabled Taylor to coach his son, Nick, on a Rocklin fourth- and fifth-grade AAU team.
With Lane, one of the area's hottest recruits, returning for his senior season, along with 6-5 junior forward Pat Stover and 5-8 sophomore point guard Jackson Cummings, plus a host of bench players who earned valuable minutes this season, the Thunder might have the talent to top this year's effort.
Taylor also thinks the program's foundation is strong enough to withstand the presence of Whitney, a new school now competing for Rocklin-area athletes.
"We've won 25, 26 and 30 games the last three years and been in the final four five of the last seven years," Taylor said. "Our whole thing is that we continue to have a lot of kids involved in the program who are willing to work on skill development and to work hard in the offseason.
"The key for us is that when those rebuilding years come, that we are able to stay a little bit above .500."
- Bill Paterson