The end result was difficult to digest, though the journey was refreshing and rewarding.
No high school team high-steps into Sleep Train Arena expecting to be satisfied with a runner-up finish. But since effort counts here, Woodcreek can stand tall as the final upper-division boys team in the region competing for a championship.
Struggling from the field until finding their touch a bit too late, the Timberwolves fell to an upstart program with a similar makeup Saturday in the CIF Northern California Division I championship game.
San Ramon Valley of Danville won 49-45 for its first NorCal title since repeating as D-II champion in 1992. The euphoria of the third-seeded Wolves at midcourt is what the fourth-seeded Timberwolves wanted in a matchup of section semifinal losers that had to scramble to reach this stage.
“We had a great year,” veteran Woodcreek coach Paul Hayes said. “Very proud of these guys. This is what we’ve done all year: Don’t quit; never quit. It started in practice. We had some great scrimmages, and it carried over to the end here.”
Woodcreek (27-6) was anchored by nine seniors, none more experienced or vital than fourth-year starting point guard Noah Blackwell, who is headed to Long Beach State on scholarship. Blackwell vowed to get his team into a title game this season after the Timberwolves just missed qualifying for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs last season despite winning 18 games.
Woodcreek tied powerhouse Folsom for the Sierra Foothill League championship, lost to Sheldon in a section D-I semifinal, then made another run. The Timberwolves toppled Freedom of Oakley and top-seeded De La Salle of Concord to reach their third NorCal final since 2003 and first in D-I.
But big-venue jitters and the hawking defense of San Ramon Valley (26-6) doomed Woodcreek. The Timberwolves shot 32 percent and committed 17 turnovers. They made just 3 of 11 three-point attempts, though all three came in the final 1:25 to make it interesting, including two by Malcolm Thomas, a football star who helped elevate that program to new heights last fall.
The late three-pointers by Woodcreek and the effort by both teams caught the attention of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, sitting courtside. He leaned back several times, mouth agape and eyebrows raised, offering cheers. Cousins has been a regular at prep events during his Kings career, be they Grant football games or area basketball games, from Folsom to Sacramento High to Sleep Train.
San Ramon Valley sealed it with free throws down the stretch and will play Chino Hills for the CIF State title Friday at Cal.
“The arena does impact your shot, and the depth of field is a factor,” said Hayes, who also credited San Ramon Valley’s defense.
Despite the graduation of their senior core, the Timberwolves will be in good hands with the return of their leading scorer and rebounder, 6-foot-9 freshman Jordan Brown, who had 15 points and a game-high 18 rebounds.This season’s other key seniors include Thomas Austefjord, Donn Corbin, Grady Collins and Thomas.
“It was a great year,” Blackwell said. “I’m proud of everyone.”
Added Hayes, “It’s tough to hurt right now. When you get this far, a large number of teams don’t win. It’s hard. Most end with a loss. We could’ve folded up after losing to Sheldon and said, ‘Ah, I’m done.’ But we didn’t. We kept fighting. We had a lot of great wins.”
Keith Smith scored a game-high 16 points for San Ramon Valley, and Christian Fuca had 13.