As a group, the Whitney Wildcats have won 104 games over four high school basketball seasons, and the victory they craved the most came to life Friday night.
Pulling away in the second half with crisp passing, execution and stifling defense to ward off a team that had bounced higher seeds along the way, the top-seeded Wildcats of Rocklin beat Beyer of Modesto 60-38 to win the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II boys championship at Pacific.
Embracing a family feel where everyone supports one another with the mantra that the only stats that matter are winning streaks, Whitney won its first title in its first championship appearance. The winning streak now stands at 14 with more championships to pursue. The CIF Northern California playoffs start next week, and the Wildcats expect a top-three seed.
Whitney’s senior class has gone 104-14, spanning all levels. It started with a 27-0 run as freshmen and now includes a 27-4 record in a season no one in Wildcats colors wants to end – the best in school history.
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“What we wanted to do more than anything was to become a family,” junior wing Matt Willis said. “We’ve done that.”
And it’s one very big extended family.
Whitney, inspired by its impressive drumline and energized student section, beat Del Oro for the first time in the program’s 14-year history in a semifinal. Beyer, the sixth seed, toppled third-seeded Rio Linda and beat No. 2 Burbank in double overtime in a semifinal. The Patriots were attempting to become the first Modesto city school to win a championship since Modesto High in 1983 and ’84.
But Beyer found no easy routes to the basket and managed just 12 second-half points.
This championship thing may be old hat for Nick French, who coached Hoover High of Fresno to a Central Section crown before arriving at Whitney four years ago. He took over a Whitney program that went 6-21 in 2012-13 and has produced four playoff teams and a scrapbook that continues to fill.
Jashon Lewis, Whitney’s top player the last two seasons, had 23 points and eight rebounds on his 18th birthday, and he vowed to sleep with the net draped over his neck “for a few days.” Willis had 12 points and Juren Porras and Tyler Austin had nine each for the Wildcats, whose suffocating defense limited Beyer to 32 percent shooting.
Lewis, a smooth 6-foot-2 guard, can score inside and out, and he hustles on defense, too. He said of the title day, “It’s the best day of my life.”
French expected a playoff run this season but wondered along with his assistants about team chemistry. Those fears faded after a few games.
“It’s the most close-knit group of guys I’ve ever been around,” French said. “The biggest fear, the biggest worry, was would we get along. They’ve become such good friends, and they get along great.
“There’s a great culture, and they made it happen.”