Every so often, this high school nestled in the heart of Contra Costa County roars around the corner, bearing fangs, claws and tradition, and levels the best the Sacramento region has to offer.
It happened in 2012 and 2013 when the De La Salle Spartans’ nationally renowned football team buckled a 14-0 Folsom squad in the CIF Northern California Open Division championship game.
And it happened in basketball Tuesday night as De La Salle derailed another season of great promise.
Putting on a defensive clinic, hustling for every loose ball and making shots and free throws down the stretch, the top-seeded Spartans defeated the Sacramento Dragons 63-56 in a NorCal Open Division semifinal in a packed gym expecting a heavyweight bout.
De La Salle needed a monstrous defensive effort to stall fourth-seeded Sacramento, which typically sets a blistering pace to run teams out of the gym. Unbeaten in Northern California this season, the Spartans (30-2) thwarted the Dragons’ warp-speed style.
Easy access down the lane to the basket was nonexistent. The baseline was cut off. Shots rimmed out. Three-point shots missed, as did free throws.
“They cracked down, played great defense,” said Christian Terrell, the Dragons’ senior guard and captain. “They set the pace, their pace, and we played into their hands.”
Said De La Salle coach A.J. Kuhle of slowing the pace to a virtual crawl and working the ball inside: “We do what we’ve done throughout the course of the year, trying to do what we always do.”
They cracked down, played great defense. They set the pace, their pace, and we played into their hands.
Sacramento guard Christian Terrell, on De La Salle
What the Spartans also do is move the ball, work the clock and find players cutting to the basket. Some might suggest this defensive, slow-down approach is dull. But winning isn’t dull, and De La Salle is in a NorCal title game for the 12th time, and ninth time since 2000, seeking its sixth championship. The Spartans play second-seeded Modesto Christian, which eliminated Sheldon 61-49, on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena.
Jordan Ratinho led the Spartans with 20 points and Emeka Udenyi had 19.
Solomon Young was the only Dragon who really gave the Spartans fits. The powerful 6-foot-7 forward had 24 points and 11 rebounds. He muscled inside, hit jumpers and ran the floor. He was the only Sacramento player to score in double figures.
Young had a long postgame embrace with his mother, Tina Young. They hugged and cried. Young said last week, “I want to make her proud. I know she’s proud of me being a good kid and good student, and I try to take after her by being a good person.”
Said Tina: “I’m very proud.”
30-2 Sacramento High’s record this season
Sacramento coach Derek Swafford said he will fondly bid farewell to a host of senior cornerstone players, including Terrell, Young, Raphael Durr, Josh Gonzalez, Sayvon Hines and Andrew Williams. Swafford said the Dragons (30-2) can stand tall after what they accomplished this season, including an overtime win over Folsom in a NorCal opener.
“We did a lot of great things this season,” Terrell said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about W’s and L’s. We have a lot to be proud of.”