Fred Wilson wore the expression of profound relief on Friday night.
And then he flashed a championship smile as giddy members of the West Campus High School boys basketball team danced around him and mobbed their leader.
A bear of a man who coaches his players hard and loves them up even harder, Wilson appreciates the journey and rewards of surviving a Sac-Joaquin Section championship bracket. He was an assistant coach at Kennedy in 2004 when the Cougars won the Division I banner, and he rejoiced with West Campus' breakthrough effort in Division IV, holding off Placer 67-60 Friday at the University of the Pacific.
The Warriors lost to Central Catholic of Modesto in the 2016 finals by a point and then to the same program last season in overtime. The anguish was real. So was the elation this time.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"I'm so excited, proud of these kids," Wilson said, exhaling. "It's our third time here, and each time it felt like it was slipping away. It's our seventh year as a coaching staff. It's been a long time, and it's hard to get here. To finally get it, it means a lot. These kids have earned it."
In an era of up-tempo basketball and 3-point shooting, from the NBA on down, West Campus showed that there is still room for a center. Nate Karren, all 6-feet-9 inches of ability and long arms and effort, pounded inside for 21 points and 17 rebounds.
The three-year varsity player broke down sobbing after previous title-game losses. This one was sheer joy.
"When I got here as a sophomore, we had eight seniors, and I was a role player," Karren said. "I stepped up as a senior, as a leader, and I don't know if I was ready for it, but my teammates carried me. This is for all of us. We did it together."
Balanced scoring and poise down the stretch has defined the Warriors of late, including rallying from 15 points down in the fourth quarter in the previous two games. Against Placer, Bryce O'Neil had 15 points and 15 rebounds, Quincy Taylor had 13 points and five rebounds and Fred Burton contributed 12 and six. The bigger Warriors outrebounded Placer 47-31.
The one difficult matchup was Kai Huntsberry, and the stellar Placer senior showed that he's one of the top talents in the section. The guard had 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, and he made sure to shake hands with a number of West Campus players in the back hallways, wishing them well in the CIF Northern California Regional tournament that starts next week. Placer will also advance.
The Hillmen reached a Section final for the first time since winning it in D-III in 1988.