Joe Davidson

Who's laughing now? Sheldon a sign of area's progress in California prep basketball

Sheldon's Kaito Williams shoots while being defended by Modesto Christian's Junior Ballard (5) in the CIF Division I Section championship game in the Spanos Center at Pacific on March 3.
Sheldon's Kaito Williams shoots while being defended by Modesto Christian's Junior Ballard (5) in the CIF Division I Section championship game in the Spanos Center at Pacific on March 3. Special to The Bee

For years, it was unheard of to reach this point of the season.

A Sacramento-area basketball team advancing to the finals of the Sac-Joaquin Section upper-division tournaments was something worthy of a campus celebration. The ascent seemed so grand and arduous. But to reach the CIF Northern California postseason for the larger-enrollment schools, the big boys on the block? Pure fantasy. A Mount Everest task in high tops.

The best ball was played in the Bay Area and in Southern California. This area served as so much cannon fodder. Mike Bradley speaks from experience. He was a guard on the 1983 Highlands team that won a Division I section championship and stormed to a 33-0 start before getting run off the court in a NorCal opener by Fremont of Sunnyvale.

The old wounds linger. Bradley is now the longtime assistant coach to Joey Rollings at Sheldon, where the Huskies represent a remarkable show of sustained progress. Rollings has made the NorCal tourney routine for Sheldon, when it was foreign territory to so many for so long.

The Huskies are in a NorCal final for the fourth time this decade, including back-to-back showings in the prestigious Open Division final.

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"It was such a major achievement just to get far in the section playoffs, especially for a public school, and for a lot of Sacramento-area teams that made the NorCals in the 1980s or 90s, they'd get blown out by Bay Area teams," Bradley said. "It was bad. It's amazing to see how far we've come. I love it."

Kennedy in 1990 was the first regional team to win a NorCal D-I game. Then in 1991, the 33-0 Cougars with coach Spider Thomas and stars Scott Saber and Andrew Watson were routed by Bishop O'Dowd in the NorCals. The smug O'Dowd coaches scoffed at Kennedy, one insisting, "We see better competition at the bottom of our league. Sacramento teams are nothing to us."

Jesuit and coach Hank Meyer took the regional torch in 1993 and '94 and broke through with D-I NorCal banners, falling to Crenshaw of Los Angeles in the state final.

On Saturday, O'Dowd stands between Sheldon and its second NorCal trophy when they meet in the Open Division championship game at Santa Clara's Leavey Center.

The Huskies are in the midst of this region's longest stretch of hoops success, rivaled in the section only by Modesto Christian, and they have done so as a public school. Folsom has tasted some of this success, too, including upsetting state No. 1 Salesian of Richmond in a NorCal Open opener before falling to Sheldon in a semifinal at overflow Cosumnes River College on Tuesday.

Sheldon has sent its share of players on to Division I college scholarships, but it has also won 58 games the last two seasons without a D-I recruit. It's testament to the work Rollings has done, punctuated by his teams sharing the ball and playing ferocious defense.

Rollings has accelerated the learning curve. He has scheduled Bay Area teams and out-of-state tournaments to test his players and to close the gap.

"Our area teams are as good as the Bay Area now, and in some cases, better," Rollings said. "Now we just need to finish it with a state championship."

Sheldon has the attention of the NorCal field, and from rivals who have become supporters this time of season. And it has the attention of the Sacramento Kings Foundation, who on Monday will recognize the Huskies at Golden 1 Center for their basketball success, service in the community and team GPA.

"It used to be far fetched to have our D-I teams do this," said Ken Mandfredi, coach of Franklin, a rival of Sheldon in the Delta League. "It's just so hard to win. I bumped into a guy at the grocery store who said he was shocked at how good and skilled the players are now, like at Sheldon, as compared to years ago.

"The kids are playing a lot of ball, getting national competition in the summer and early season tournaments. What Sheldon has accomplished doesn't get enough appreciation."

Manfredi has seen Sheldon up close for years, including a long coaching stint at nearby Monterey Trail. He said Sheldon represents a gauge for all area programs.

"I've been really impressed with their quality of play and how their kids represent themselves and their school," Manfredi said. "Sheldon can legitimately say over the last five years that it has a great team, taking guys one through 12 who have bought in. I'd describe them as relentless. You may beat Sheldon for a four-minute stretch, but their assault of depth? They're going to get you.

"And we're lucky as fans. To see that great crowd and game with Folsom and Sheldon (at CRC) was amazing. Think of how many dads brought their sons who aspire to be out there."

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