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Three area basketball teams left in CIF NorCal playoffs; how they got here, what it means

Watch Marcus Bagley and Sheldon beat De La Salle in playoffs

Sheldon High School – lead by Marcus Bagley and Justin Nguyen – wins against De La Salle High School at the 2019 Northern California regional basketball playoffs Saturday, March 2, 2019, with a score of 60-53.
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Sheldon High School – lead by Marcus Bagley and Justin Nguyen – wins against De La Salle High School at the 2019 Northern California regional basketball playoffs Saturday, March 2, 2019, with a score of 60-53.

One expected to get here.

Another was hopeful, and the third dare not fathom the idea not long ago.

The “here” is the summit of the CIF Northern California basketball championships Tuesday night.

Sheldon High School is the defending boys NorCal Open Division champion, the prestigious level for upper-tier programs.

The Huskies (23-10) take on Modesto Christian (27-7) at Cosumnes River College for the title and a shot at the Southern California heavy this weekend at Golden 1 Center. The Huskies are, in a word, relentless. They defend, they attack the lane, the rim, the 3-point line. They’re united as one, and they represent the Elk Grove Unified School District.

The smallest division, D-VI, includes the Forest Lake Christian girls. They hail from Auburn, a small school that has played big for years.

And how’s this for a heady play? Facing top-seeded Redding Christian in a semifinal Saturday as time was running out, Amber Jackson of Forest Lake Christian fell with the ball. She was surrounded by five defenders yet was able to fire the ball to an open Lily Sween for the winning basket, a 48-47 triumph for the Falcons (24-6).

Now it’s another road trip, to Etna (24-6), not too far south of the Oregon border, for the championship.

And there’s Union Mine, the only No. 16 seed of the seven girls and seven boys divisions left standing in the north or south brackets. The Diamondbacks of El Dorado are 23-8 overall and 3-0 in the Division III girls NorCal bracket, having bounced No. 1 Christian Brothers in Sacramento 54-47, No. 9 Aragon in San Mateo 46-34 and No. 4 Seaside 55-29.

Gas up the vans, ladies. It’s go time again.

Led by cornerstones Ali McDonald and Carley Zaragoza, Union Mine visits second-seeded Oakland (28-5) for the banner.

The NorCal playoffs offer a chance to maintain momentum (hello, Sheldon), to compete well beyond the comforts of the Sac-Joaquin Section (take a bow, Forest Lake Christian) and to prove low seeds and underdogs mean zip (stand tall, Union Mine).

It took Union Mine 15 seasons to produce its first girls basketball winner after the school opened. Under fourth-year coach Scott Gilliland, winning is now the name of the game.

“We’re the 16 seed,” Gilliland told me after the Christian Brothers win. “We’re supposed to be the sacrificial lamb, just show up. Now, we’ll be the team that no one wants to face.”

Familiar territory

Girls winning CIF State titles is nothing new to regional teams, including Forest Lake doing so in D-V in 2004. Colfax won D-III titles in 1983 and ‘84, Placer in 1989 and St. Francis in 1994. Grant won in D-II in 1988 and ‘89 and El Camino in ‘94. West Campus won titles in D-IV and D-III the past two seasons. Oak Ridge in 2010 and McClatchy in 2015 won D-I titles.

Growing pains

For the boys, a D-I state title was unthinkable for regional teams throughout the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s.

Teams from Southern California and the Bay Area were simply too strong, too skilled.

Jesuit and coach Hank Meyer reached D-I state finals in 1993 and ‘94, falling both times to Crenshaw of Los Angeles. Pleasant Grove in 2013 with coach John DePonte won the region’s only D-I boys state title.

That was the same season the Open Division came into play. The concept was an effort to place all the powerhouse programs into one division, thus allowing others to have a fighting chance, as private schools were overwhelmingly dominating all divisions.

The concept has worked. Everyone has a fighting chance now.

In 2013, Sheldon beat Pleasant Grove twice in Delta League play and for the D-I section title and was pulled into the Open. Some argue the other divisions are watered down now with the Open casting such a shadow. That’s over-thinking it too much. A title is a title, but let’s be clear: Nothing sparkles quite like an Open banner.

Building blocks

The boys pioneers of this region took their lumps in helping pave the way for today’s champions.

Highlands in 1983 started 33-0 but was walloped in a NorCal D-I opener by Fremont of Sunnyvale. The guard on that Scots team coached by Carl Montros was Mike Bradley. He’s the longtime assistant coach to Joey Rollings at Sheldon.

“It’s great to see how far this area has come,” Bradley said.

Kennedy in 1990 was the section’s first team to win a NorCal D-I game. The 1991 Kennedy team that started 33-0 under coach Spider Thomas was rolled under in a NorCal opener by Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland, prompting an O’Dowd coach to smugly declare afterward, “We see better competition at the bottom of our league. Sacramento teams are nothing to us.”

They are now.

Sheldon beat O’Dowd in the NorCal Open final a year ago, days after Folsom upended Cal-Hi Sports state No. 1-ranked Salesian of Richmond in an Open opener.

Sheldon is in its fourth NorCal Open final and third in succession. That’s a remarkable feat for a public school. And Sheldon whisks away any narrative that suggests that, like Folsom in football, it wins unnaturally, that public schools simply cannot do this.

They can and they do, and Sheldon is a team that plays the right way. The Huskies would delight coaches from any era in how they compete and share the ball and say nothing during competition. It’s all business with this group.

Sheldon on Saturday methodically beat De La Salle 60-53, some 20 minutes before state No. 1 Salesian had its 31-0 season derailed by Modesto Christian 56-55.

Said De La Salle coach Justin Argenal of Sheldon, “They’re big, strong, physical and athletic. They challenge shots at the rim, which at the high school level is huge. And in this atmosphere you’ve got to go up strong. You’ve got to go to the rim strong and you’ve gotta finish. This is high-level high school basketball.”

It’s big-boy ball. The top two teams in the Sac-Joaquin are again the top two teams in Northern California.

Two years ago, Woodcreek and Sheldon played for the section and NorCal Open banners. The Sacramento region in general upped its game by upping its schedule over the years. The powerhouse programs such as Sheldon, Folsom, Woodcreek and Capital Christian closed the gap with the Bay Area, then equaled it, then passed it in recent years.

The region hasn’t just joined the party, it’s crashed the party.

CIF Northern California finals
All games 7 p.m. unless noted


Boys

Open Division

No. 4 Modesto Christian (27-7) vs. No. 2 Sheldon (23-10) at Cnsumnes River College

Division I

No. 2 Branson (31-2) at No. 1 James Logan (26-6)

Division II

No. 9 Serra (20-9) at No. 2 Campolindo (25-7)

Division III

No. 8 Monterey (25-4) vs. No. 3 University-San Francisco (27-9) at Kezar Pavilion

Division IV

No. 6 Wood (26-7) at No. 5 Immanuel (25-8), 6 p.m.

Division V

No. 2 Dinuba (27-8) at No. 1 Mt. Shasta (32-1), 6 p.m.

Division VI

No. 2 Redding Christian (33-0) at No. 1 Cornerstone Christian (33-2)

Girls

Open Division

No. 4 Salesian (25-8) vs. No. 3 Pinewood (26-3) at Gunn High School

Division I

No. 6 Bear Creek (30-5) at No. 4 Bishop O’Dowd (23-9)

Division II

No. 3 Enterprise (28-5) at No. 1 Menlo School (24-5)

Division III

No. 16 Union Mine (23-8) at No. 2 Oakland (28-5)

Division IV

No. 4 Oakland Tech (28-6) at No. 2 Menlo-Atherton (19-11)

Division V

No. 3 Caruthers (30-4) at No. 1 St. Bernard’s (26-6)

Division VI

No. 5 Forest Lake Christian (24-6) at No. 2 Etna (24-6), 6 p.m.

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.
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