Joe Davidson

Upstart Franklin Wildcats talk life, basketball and the season’s biggest upset

Franklin High School basketball coach Ken Manfredi talks life and basketball every day. The Wildcats on Friday halted Sheldon’s 56-game Delta League winning streak.
Franklin High School basketball coach Ken Manfredi talks life and basketball every day. The Wildcats on Friday halted Sheldon’s 56-game Delta League winning streak. jdavidson@sacbee.com

Three days after staging the region’s most stirring boys basketball upset of 2018-19, this is what the Franklin Wildcats did on a holiday: They got right back to work.

Practice drills were heavy on fundamentals – screens, back-door cuts, boxing out, shooting form, communication. Coach Ken Manfredi was at the center of the action, imploring attention to detail right on down to setting his own high-post skills.

Defeating Sheldon, the area’s preeminent powerhouse this decade, 67-63, two weeks after being shelled by 40 points against the same squad won’t be enough to define the season unless the the Bee-ranked No. 9 Wildcats continue the momentum.

But talk about a boost in the right direction for a team that starts just one senior in Leland Estacio, a 6-foot-2 guard who had 28 points against Sheldon, including 19 in the fourth quarter. He made 9 of 10 free throws down the stretch to salt it away in front of a frenzied, overflow home crowd.

Estacio and friends have exchanged a lot of high fives on campus this week for a job well done in a season of sudden great promise.

“It was an exciting win, a great win,” Estacio said.

Though Sheldon played shorthanded with key players such as star Marcus Bagley out with injury, Franklin players were not about to concede an ounce of satisfaction from halting the Huskies’ 56-game Delta League winning streak. It was the first time in 12 seasons that Franklin had beaten that rival, and it serves notice that upstarts can rise and heavies can fall.

And how teams respond to such matters is what defines seasons.

“To lose by 40 against such a great team, and then to improve on the little things, to grow, that’s an impressive win,” Manfredi said.

Manfredi is a big-picture thinker, well beyond his daily tasks as a Franklin economics and world history teacher. He got into coaching because of his father, Al Manfredi, who won a ton while leading the Rio Americano basketball program in the 1970s through the early 1990s.

Manfredi grew up in gyms. He played for his father as a cerebral yet tough-minded grinder with skills. And he embraced rivalries long ago. A 1991 Rio Americano graduate, Manfredi delighted in toppling chief rival Jesuit, doing so three times in his varsity career.

“Jesuit was hatred from the cradle,” Manfredi said with a laugh. “I knew and understood that rivalry. With Sheldon, it’s different, from the coaching end, but the kids live it. It means a lot to our guys and school to beat Sheldon.”

Manfredi played at UC Davis for Bob Williams, another tremendous influence on his life. After graduating with a degree in political science, Manfredi embarked on a career in the tech world, “so I could make some money,” Manfredi said, but he soon realized he was missing something much more important: his sense of true worth.

It took the searing, shocking death of his UC Davis girlfriend to help bring that focus into clear view. Manfredi got out of the tech industry and jumped into teaching and coaching, landing the Monterey Trail gig and then Franklin four years ago.

Jill Peckler, an All-America distance runner, her father and brother were killed in January 1997 when their car was struck head on by a drunk driver on Highway 267, north of Tahoe.

“What I took from Jill,” Manfredi said, “is to do what you want to do in life. That’s what she used to say. This is what I wanted to do: teach and coach. I share this story about Jill with our seniors – do what you want to do. These players, they’re like sons to me.”

Manfredi concluded Monday’s practice with thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr. He told his attentive audience of players to think of social injustice, of bettering others and themselves, to appreciate the little things in life, and to appreciate each other.

“Know what brings us together? Basketball,” Manfredi told the team. “It’s a vehicle for us.”

He added, “You guys are phenomenal stewards of our program – on campus and off. You’re good ambassadors for our school.”

Franklin’s roster and campus reflects a melting pot of diversity. Estacio is Filipino. He has teammates who are black, white, Asian and Latino.

Estacio is a 3.7-GPA student, including courses such as AP calculus and physics, so hoops affords an opportunity to sweat his body a bit after taxing his brain with his studies. He wants to study mechanical engineering in college.

“We have diversity all over,” Estacio said with a smile. “It’s a great world to live in.”

And a great campus to roam beyond the 65 clubs offered. Franklin has an impacted campus, meaning it’s full, packed to the brim with 2,750 students, and it’s thriving across the board, including the band, theater and a number of academic programs.

The school opened in the Elk Grove Unified School District in 2002 and has been a player in sports across the board. Manfredi’s wife, Josette, is an English and AVID teacher there.

The 10 Franklin players on the roster all came from Toby Johnson Middle School, which shares the block with Franklin. It’s as homegrown as a large school can get.

“We love that,” Manfredi said.

Estacio leads the team but is hardly a one-man show. He’s flanked by guards Jaztein Blackmon, Davion Wright, David Martinez-Reyes, Jacob Young and forwards/posts Mulik Johnson and Jaelon Roberts.

This isn’t the most imposing lineup in the region, but it’s as crafty, smart and determined as you’ll find.

“We look like a JV team,” assistant coach Mike Messina said with a laugh. “But we sure play hard and compete.”

Wright represents a bright Wildcats future. He’s a freshman who plays beyond his years and is the first 14-year-old to start for Manfredi in his 15 years as a head coach.

Johnson represents what’s good about common decency, Manfredi said. Johnson shakes everyone’s hand and is unfailingly polite, though he can turn it on to another intense gear while boxing out come game time.

“Mulik is the most liked kid on campus for all the right reasons,” Manfredi said. “He holds open a door for everyone. Just one of those kinds of kids.”

And just one of those kinds of teams.

Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson: jdavidson@sacbee.com, @SacBee_JoeD.
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