March Madness, local edition

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Where’s Dick Vitale when you need him?

When the brackets of the CIF State Basketball Championships were released Sunday, it took a moment for the gravity to settle in.

Sonoma County would be home to three first-round playoff games in one night, a rare occurrence that amounts to our own little slice of March Madness.

The California Interscholastic Federation posts its basketball brackets only back to 2006. Since then, the Redwood Empire has never hosted even two games in a single night. Tonight, we’ve got three: No.9 McNair of Stockton at No.8 Windsor boys; No.12 Florin of Sacramento at the No.5 Casa Grande girls in Division 2; and No.10 Marshall of San Francisco at the No.7 Cardinal Newman boys in Division 4.

All three games tip off at 7 p.m., creating a diabolical decision for local high school sports fans.
If you are into comebacks and turnarounds, the girls might be the draw. Three years ago, Casa Grande stumbled through an 8-17 season, with a dismal 2-10 record in Sonoma County League play. Two of the Gauchos’ current starters, seniors Gretchen Harrigan and Stephanie Sack, were on that 2008-09 team.

Even back then, Sack’s father, Casa coach Dan Sack, saw clues that things were going to get better.

“The team was led by two freshmen, and it was competitive,” he said. “But they couldn’t get over the hump. In all but like two of the losses, we lost by 14 points or under, and nine of them were single digits. There were good signs. It just didn’t translate to wins.”
Casa improved to 20-10 in 2009-2010, and went 19-10 in 2010-11 despite losing Harrigan for most of the year after she was involved in an on-campus altercation. With their leading scorer back this year, the Gauchos went undefeated in league; they take an overall mark of 30-2 into the Florin game. Of the six teams playing in Sonoma County this week, Casa Grande has the highest ranking — 48th among all California girls teams.

None of that is likely to intimidate Florin, though. Three years ago, the Panthers went 0-24. You read that right. Zero wins. Twenty-four losses. Only four of the defeats were by single digits. The year before that, in coach Larry Price’s first season, Florin was 3-21.

“I believe kids were going to other schools for a better opportunity,” Price said. “There is talent in that school district, but it was leaving for schools like Kennedy and Sacramento High.”

Price, a bear of a man known for his displays of agitation during games, brought credibility to the program. He and his son have been coaching an AAU team for about 15 years. Price’s presence encouraged girls to stay at Florin, and his basketball knowledge brought out their skills. Many of the Panthers now play for his AAU team as well.

“I think there is a lot of talent at that school,” Price said. “It needs to be nurtured and developed. I think we’re on the right road now.”

The Panthers got a big boost two years ago when forward Deijah Joe-Smith and guard Deja Conger joined the program as freshmen. Last year, the freshman influx included point guard Kynnidi Ricardo and post player Dalayna Sampton. By now, those four form the core of a team that goes into tonight’s game with 24-7 record. That mark includes a 105-2 victory over Hiram Johnson.

Florin should present a stiff challenge to a Casa Grande team that lost 60-45 to Carondelet in the NCS Division 2 championship.

The Gauchos played an impressive first half against the No. 1 seed at Dublin High, but ultimately ran out of steam against an opponent with a deeper bench. Florin will test Casa’s stamina as well.

Asked to describe the Panthers’ style of play, Price said: “A lot of defense. A lot of defense — and our defense becomes our offense if we can get turnovers. A lot of people think we play a matchup zone, but we really don’t. We play a 2-3 zone and we cover the perimeter. We extend the 2-3 to halfcourt to put pressure on the ball, and we try to take the opponent deep into the shot clock and let the clock become our ally.”

Dan Sack saw Florin play in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals, though his insight was limited because he watched the Panthers in a 74-33 loss to St. Mary’s, a team that has destroyed almost every opponent it has faced this season. Sack also got a DVD and a scouting report from Montgomery girls coach Steve Bell, whose team beat Florin in overtime in December.

Sack knows the Panthers are tall, quick and aggressive. He also knows never to sell these Gauchos short.

“Whatever the outcome (tonight), I’m confident my kids will come out and fight and be competitive,” Sack said. “Whether we stack up to their size or stack up to their speed, the one thing I feel confident in is that we will leave everything we have on the court.”

If any of the Redwood Empire teams win tonight, they will play in the second round Saturday. But don’t look for another local dose of March Madness. Those games would all be played on the road.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.