Two players epitomize the grit and relentless will of the Sheldon Huskies.
Justin Nguyen took a hard third-quarter spill at Santa Clara University on Saturday night, his cranium bouncing off the Leavey Center court. He shook it off, though you could almost hear the marbles rattling around his think tank.
Dom Johnson, a football player used to hard knocks, took a shot to the mouth and also was laid out on the baseline, and then he winced even more when a mountain of a 6-foot-8, 240-pound big stepped on his ankle. A lesser man might have stayed down.
Those durable guards returned to action against storied Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland and then had plenty of lift in their weary legs to celebrate the most significant win in program history, downing the Dragons 61-60 to win the CIF Northern California Open Division championship.
It might even be the biggest basketball win in the history of the Elk Grove Unified School District, which dates back to the Bill Cartwright-led Elk Grove teams that played a national schedule in 1974 and '75 and competed in the Tournament of Champions in Oakland to sell out crowds eager for a state tournament.
Sheldon won the 2012 Division I NorCal title, but this one is more of a grand prize as the Open is a big-boy baller tournament pitting the best of the best. And the Huskies scored another one for public schools. The first four NorCal Open champions were private schools, including Mitty of San Jose beating Sheldon in 2013 and O'Dowd downing Capital Christian in 2014. Woodcreek of Roseville made it a public-school breakthrough a year ago, beating Sheldon in a thriller, 66-59.
And O'Dowd? The Dragons have won nine NorCal titles, and they had Division I recruits dotted across their roster.
"We just had to stay in there, don't give up," said Nguyen, a junior point guard who had 10 points.
Johnson has dazzled in the playoffs, including the game winner to beat Memorial of Fresno in a NorCal opener. The senior had 16 points and nine rebounds, and it was his lob to Ronald Agebsar for an emphatic dunk as the shot clock expired that gave Sheldon a 61-57 lead with 24 seconds to go for what pretty much was the exclamation point.
William Chavarin hit a 3-pointer with 0.5 left for O'Dowd, and Sheldon rushed the floor after a timeout and an inbounds was knocked away by the Dragons.
Kaito Williams, a junior guard, had 11 points, and senior floor leader Dale Currie had 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals for the Huskies (29-5), who play Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth to cap the season at Golden 1 on Saturday.
All of this from a team that had a 19-game winning streak halted by Modesto Christian in the most crushing way on March 3. A desperate 3-pointer to beat the shot clock late led to a 60-56 victory for Modesto Christian in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I finals at Pacific.
Currie said he and his teammates had one of two choices the rest of the way: quit or compete. The Huskies compete, a mandate issued by coach Joey Rollings, who may grumble and grouse at his guys in practice and games but loves each of them like sons. The respect is mutual.
"It was a hard journey, but we kept fighting," Currie said. "Hard work always pays off. We're so happy for coach. He's earned this."
Said Rollings after his fourth NorCal title appearance, "Before the season, I knew we were good enough to reach the section finals, but knew we could make a run if we came together. There's never any quit in these guys."
Per the norm, Sheldon received efforts from a number of unsung players. Chris Wriedt had five rebounds and only allowed his 6-8 recruit prospect Raymond Hawkins to score one bucket against him and grab three rebounds in 22 minutes. Xavion Brown handled the ball and played tenacious defense, and he was a key player in a semifinal win over Folsom, which turned this NorCal Open bracket on its side with a stunning opening win over CalHi Sports state-ranked No. 1 Salesian.
Xavier Brown had four points, each coming off free throws after Nguyen and Johnson were not allowed to shoot free throws after taking hard spills, though each re-entered the game once they regained their senses.
Nine players saw action, a team united.
"What this says is we can compete with anybody and win—public schools, private schools, Bay Area schools, Fresno schools," Wriedt said.