It’s a new day, a new era.
The days of the Bay Area casting formidable shadows over the regional high school basketball scene are over. Prep hoops here is finally on par with the San Francisco-Oakland region, and it’s playing out at a historic pace in the CIF Northern California Open Division playoffs.
Of the eight teams placed in the elite Open Division, a record four hail from the Sac-Joaquin Section, including a record three locally: Sacramento, Folsom and Sheldon. Section champion Modesto Christian is the No. 2 seed behind De La Salle of Concord, which hosts fourth-seeded Sacramento in a semifinal Tuesday night.
When I first started coaching here years ago, there was no real thought about beating the Bay Area teams. Now we’re right there, and in a lot of ways we’re passing the Bay teams. Now they have to come up here to scout us.
Sheldon basketball coach Joey Rollings
Sixth-seeded Sheldon dispatched Moreau Catholic of Hayward on Friday in a first-round game. Moreau Catholic handed Sacramento (30-1) its lone loss. Sheldon (23-5) faces Modesto Christian (31-1) in the other semifinal at Modesto Junior College, eager to avenge a close section semifinal loss. Sacramento eliminated Folsom on Friday.
This is progress by leaps and jumpers. Two NorCal Open games were decided by three points, and two went to overtime. For years, section teams generally got buried early by their Bay Area counterparts. The gap has closed, and now it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see Sacramento play Sheldon in the NorCal Open final Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena.
“The Sacramento area has come a long way,” Sheldon coach Joey Rollings said. “When I first started coaching here years ago, there was no real thought about beating the Bay Area teams. Now we’re right there, and in a lot of ways we’re passing the Bay teams. Now they have to come up here to scout us. The players around here are putting in more time, understanding the big picture of how to play, that it’s not all about them. It pays off.”
Area powerhouses regularly schedule those from the Bay Area or Southern California. The intent is to face every style of team: big, fast, shooters. In decades past, teams rarely scheduled opponents from outside the region. Even more impressive: Folsom, Sacramento and Sheldon were the only public schools in the Open field.
“It shows that it can be done, and it’s really cool to see these local teams in the Open,” Sacramento coach Derek Swafford said. “It shows that coaches can build these great programs, schedule tough and see the rewards. Now we all have a shot to win this.”
Which is something no section team has done since the Open Division started in 2013.
Mitty of San Jose, led by eventual Orlando Magic first-round pick Aaron Gordon, beat Sheldon for the Open title in 2013. Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland, anchored by 6-foot-10 Ivan Rabb (now at Cal), beat Capital Christian in 2014 and Modesto Christian in 2015 for the championship.
Not all coaches and fans are in favor of the Open, believing it should be for private schools only. Rollings and Swafford don’t mind the format. They want to take on the best, and they want to face each other Saturday. Coaches say it is an honor to be placed in the Open Division.
It shows that it can be done, and it’s really cool to see these local teams in the Open. It shows that coaches can build these great programs, schedule tough and see the rewards. Now we all have a shot to win this.
Sacramento basketball coach Derek Swafford
“We’re just thrilled to be in the Open,” Saint Francis of Mountain View coach Mike Motil said before his first-round defeat at Modesto Christian. “We look at it like getting into the NCAA Tournament, and making it to the division tournament is like the NIT.”
Some Open programs have discussed creating banners for their gym walls that read “NorCal Open” with the year. It’s sound reasoning. With the top eight programs in Northern California lumped together, the Open overwhelmingly trumps the other six divisions. That’s where the shadows loom now.
But Rollings and Swafford are not interested in hoisting banners unless they read “Champions.”
“That’s like giving everyone a trophy for participating,” Rollings said. “There’s only one winner, so celebrate the winner. That’s the way to go. The big goal is winning it all.”
Tuesday’s CIF Northern California Open Division boys games
No. 4 Sacramento at No. 1 De La Salle, 7 p.m.
No. 6 Sheldon at No. 2 Modesto Christian (at Modesto Junior College), 7 p.m.
Complete schedule, Scoreboard, 4C