Joe Davidson

They thought their season ended weeks ago. A mourning star keeps their NorCal run alive

Liberty Ranch's Jalen Patterson (2) reacts as he hugs coach Josh Williams after defeating the Placer Hillman 85-80 in the Division IV CIF Northern California quarterfinal.
Liberty Ranch's Jalen Patterson (2) reacts as he hugs coach Josh Williams after defeating the Placer Hillman 85-80 in the Division IV CIF Northern California quarterfinal. Special to The Bee

There were a lot of tears after this one, raw emotion spilling out in an 80-year-old venue that has hosted its share of dramatic basketball games.

On Saturday night, Liberty Ranch of Galt used grit, guile and the sheer will of a star guard inspired by the death of a loved one to slug past Placer High School 85-80 in a CIF Northern California Division IV quarterfinal at fabled Earl Crabbe Gym.

A team that never expected to be anywhere near this stage of the season is still standing, and it stands as proof that a No. 12 seed can go on the road and knock off higher seeds. Placer was the No. 4 seed.

And in a bracket full of seedings upsets, Liberty Ranch (26-5) will on Tuesday play at No. 9 Stuart Hall of San Francisco (21-11), which stunned top-seeded Santa Cruz 55-51 on Saturday. Liberty Ranch bounced fifth-seeded Albany in the Bay Area 48-46 in a NorCal opener.

Down six players for various reasons, the Hawks won a second-round NorCal game for the first time in four attempts in recent years, and leader Jalen Patterson and his equally impressive young coach Josh Williams embraced after the dust settled and let it all out. Patterson, a poised sophomore guard, had 27 points in a game he dedicated to his great grandmother, Ira Fields. She died after an illness at 85 on Friday night. He had never played a big game without her present.

Patterson was surrounded by a strong supporting cast that helped offset a terrific effort by Kai Huntsberry. Placer's dominating senior guard hit from inside, outside and on the run in scoring 37 in his last prep outing.

The tears Huntsberry shared with his teammates and coach Mark Lee were also genuine. The season ends after the Hillmen (24-9) produced one of the finest seasons since being founded in Auburn in 1901.

"I can't believe we won it," Williams said, half out of breath, wiping tears off his face. "I'm crying for Jalen, who's hurting, and for these 10 guys who stuck with it. We knew Placer was a great team, and Kai was amazing. But we hung on with heart and character."

Liberty Ranch thought their season came to a close on Feb. 23 with an upset loss to Calaveras in the Sac-Joaquin Section D-IV quarterfinals. But on Sunday, Williams was delighted to learn that Liberty Ranch was selected as an at-large entry into the NorCal field.

The only problem was five players moved on to spring sports as they had no idea the season still had legs. An assistant coach also booked a vacation for this weekend. What's more, the team's second best player – junior guard Jaime Gonzalez – is out for the season with a broken foot.

Find a way, Williams implored his team. That message was also delivered by a fill-in assistant coach. Williams' father, John Williams, sat nervously and loaded and reloaded the ball bag before each half, and would hustle to the scorer's table for an update on team fouls.

John Williams is well versed with the playoffs as he is a retired editor from the Galt Herald and also retired from his second career as assistant commissioner of the Sac-Joaquin Section. The Williams family is synonymous with Galt. Father and son grew up in the town, both graduating from Galt High School.

Liberty Ranch opened across town nine years ago, and in quick order, Williams built a powerhouse with fundamentals and cohesion the keys. Williams has won awards for his success and sportsmanship. The tears were also for town pride.

"The connection to Galt is there, and it's a great community, born and raised, and it means everything to me," Williams said. "To bring life to Liberty Ranch basketball with these kids, it's special."

Patterson is a Galt product, too. He met Williams some 10 years ago. Williams lets Patterson run the show. He can dribble and shoot, and he averaged a hair under 23 points. Said the coach, "Jalen's the best player I've been around. I've never seen anyone like him."

Patterson said he felt his great grandmother's spirit Saturday.

"She would've been proud," Patterson said. "I made a play and I could feel her with me. We just played with a lot of heart and desire."

He hit a halfcourt shot to beat the halftime buzzer, a twisting, desperate heave, for a 51-41 lead.

Sophomore forward Isaac Padilla had 16 points for Liberty Ranch, junior forward Jayden Baroni 15, senior guard Chandler Garcia 14 and senior center Chris Fielding 11.

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