Joe Davidson

‘Higher and Higher’: Placer boys play on behind a star whose father also had hits

Herb Marshall is a happy, spry 91. He gets around just fine.

His favorite haunt is Earl Crabbe Gym at Placer High School. That venue is 82. It takes an old classic to appreciate one, and Marshall beams when talking about the Hillmen these days.

Peering down from the elevated seating onto the floor during warmups Wednesday night, Marshall said he doesn't miss many games at the gym since his playing days for the Hillmen in 1943. His thoughts on coach Mark Lee and star guard Kai Huntsberry? "Oh, they're dandies!"

Lee is in his 24th year as Placer's coach in a town in which he raised his kids. This is perhaps his greatest team, led by a player for any era in Huntsberry, a powerfully built 6-foot-2 guard, a fundamentally sound, pass-first performer.

With Lee imploring defense and the Hillmen utilizing balanced scoring by making the extra pass, Placer beat Corning of the Northern Section 86-63 in a CIF Northern California Division IV opener.

And with Liberty Ranch of Galt upsetting Albany 48-46 on two late free throws by its own star guard in Jalen Patterson, Placer will host another round Saturday.

Huntsberry led six players in double figures by insisting everyone get involved. He had 12 points, then raved about his teammates, the gym, the setting and the season. Derek Shreeve had 17, Noah Richardson 15 and Jordan Perlow, Rylan Walsh and Lucas Yamzon scored 12 each for the Hillmen (24-8).

"It's such a cool place," Huntsberry said. "I love the gym. It has a lot of culture. The atmosphere is just crazy."

The atmosphere starts to build well before tip-off. A 100-member band under director Dave Lawrenson revved up the place that includes championship banners dating to 1913 with his instruction. The band then played a moving rendition of the national anthem before hustling out in dresses and shirts and ties to perform a concert across town.

"The band is amazing," Marshall said. "When I went to school here in the '40s, we had 90 to 100 people in the band. It's always been important."

Marshall was the second MVP of the Kendall Arnett Tournament at Placer, one of the oldest running tournaments in the United States. He didn't repeat the honor because he was drafted into the Navy, spending a year on a carrier and later making a living in Sacramento in the telephone business.

"We were seniors, and they enlisted 30 of us, and we were promised we wouldn't have to go anywhere, and then 10 of us went," said Marshall, a son of a fruit farmer from nearby Newcastle. "I played four games of football for Placer and then got drafted. How about that?"

Marshall said he would have "walked home to Sacramento" on Wednesday had Placer lost. He'll be back Saturday.

So will Huntsberry and another set of fans – his parents, Howard and Phoebe. Huntsberry is quick to remind that he is not the most talented person at the dinner table. He defers to dad.

Howard Huntsberry is a retired R&B singer and actor and had hits on the Billboard R&B charts. He starred as singer Jackie Wilson in the movie "La Bamba," and it is his voice in "Ghostbusters 2" belting out "Higher and Higher."

"I can't sing like Dad," Huntsberry said with a laugh. "I can't really even sing. Me and friends have fun with it."

Howard Huntsberry said his son picked up a ball when he was 2, and he credits Phoebe for their son's athletic talents.

"His mom taught him how to play," Howard Huntsberry said. "Kai has done so well. I'm so proud of him. He's the best kept secret around."

Huntsberry is averaging 15 points, has produced several quadruple-doubles and is garnering mild recruiting interest. Yuba College coach Doug Cornelius, who has built a powerhouse program with local recruits over the years, is a regular at Placer games.

"Oh man, is he good," the coach said.

Huntsberry said he wants to play in college. He credits Lee for "teaching me how to play the game the right way. I'm thankful for my coaches and my teammates. We don't want the season to end."

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