The old mentor still has some bark in his arsenal, some gusto in his giddyup.
Paul Hayes, a coaching fixture at Woodcreek High School since it opened in 1994, fired up his already ecstatic players after a defining victory against a storied program synonymous with championships.
Pizza. On his dollar.
Hayes asked for a show of hands of who wanted to chow down after the Timberwolves survived a defensive slugfest, beating top-seeded De La Salle 43-39 in a CIF Northern California Division I semifinal, and he was greeted by a chorus of roars. The cheers and chow were well deserved.
Every basket was earned, every rebound and possession cherished as the margin of error at this time of the season is razor-thin.
“The kids earned it,” a spent Hayes said of the victory and the on-the-house eats. “You have to have fun. I still get butterflies before games. The anxiousness, the excitement, it’s still there. And the kids bring the energy.”
Woodcreek also brought poise to a gym adorned with decades of championship achievements, from national titles in football to the five NorCal basketball championships.
Seeded fourth, Woodcreek (27-5) has new life after losing to Sheldon in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals at Sleep Train Arena on March 4. Sheldon lost to Berkeley in D-I NorCal play Saturday, and Berkeley fell to San Ramon Valley of Danville 68-53 in the other semifinal Tuesday. San Ramon Valley lost twice to De La Salle in East Bay League action this season.
Timberwolves freshman Jordan Brown, as he has all season, played beyond his years against a strong Spartans defense that drains opponents through fundamentals and effort. Brown had 18 points on 9-for-12 shooting, scoring on baseline shots and drives, and grabbed 14 rebounds.
Four-year starting guard Noah Blackwell had 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists for Woodcreek. The Timberwolves’ support crew, unsung but every bit invaluable, had their moments, too, including Malcolm Thomas, Donn Corbin, Jake Dirkes, Grady Collins, Austin English and Thomas Austefjord.
Blackwell’s basket on a drive gave Woodcreek the lead for good, 40-39, with 1:39 to go. A Collins free throw with 17.1 seconds left made it 41-39. Austefjord accounted for the final points, sinking two free throws with 3.6 seconds left after grabbing a De La Salle miss, and the celebration began.
Woodcreek has tasted playoff success before, including the NorCal D-II title in 2003 under Hayes and a berth in the NorCal final in 2011, but this effort took a different tone. This was a victory over De La Salle.
“De La Salle and coach Frank Allocco play so hard, so well, and they set a standard that we all want to match,” Hayes said. “To beat a Bay Area team like this, here, is so big. It’s great for these kids.”
Despite winning 18 games last season, Woodcreek did not make the section playoffs, so motivation was at a peak this season. An impactful freshman such as Brown was a celebrated addition to the nine seniors on the roster.
“This is a huge win for us,” Blackwell said. “I’m very happy with the way we’re playing, how hard we fought. And Jordan was huge again. He came up clutch. So many of our guys did. So happy we’ve come together as a team like this.”
Blackwell had one more challenge for his school: show up loud and proud for the title game Saturday at Sleep Train Arena, specifically “The Black Mob” rooting section known to fill up banks of seats at any venue.
Saturday is also Woodcreek’s Junior Prom, though the school pushed it back to accommodate students who want to attend the 4 p.m. final.