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Padecky: Willits’ basketball squads a tale of tenacity, sacrifice

Willits player Rylee Vigil brings the ball up court against defender Alicia Mehtlan during practice at Willits High School on Monday night. (Photos by SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

Willits player Rylee Vigil brings the ball up court against defender Alicia Mehtlan during practice at Willits High School on Monday night. (Photos by SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

WILLITS — Guess, Duane Nelson said Monday, how many outside basketball hoops are located on the Willits High School grounds? I didn’t think of it as a trick question. After all, both the boys and girls teams from Willits have made the NCS basketball playoffs.

“Zero,” said Nelson, forming a circle as he placed his right index finger against his right thumb.

And thus we begin to explain the implausible journey these two teams have made, a journey that defies logic but nonetheless still occurred, a journey of sacrifice and commitment that would be the equal and the envy of a high school five times its size (Willits’ student population is 470).

“Kids here in Willits don’t start playing basketball until the seventh grade (when a kid reaches junior high),” said Nelson, coach of the 21-5 boys team. “There’s no rec ball or CYO ball here in Willits. If you want to play, you have to have someone take you to Cloverdale and Ukiah. … On the other hand we have a lot of 19-year olds from Willits who are just coming into their own.”

Nelson said that with a laugh, like a-whaddya-going-do laugh. Nelson and Eric Mehtlan, the girls coach, don’t whine about what they don’t have — each team only has eight players on the roster — but rather they find a way to squeeze every drop of talent of what they do have. This is when the implausible becomes a little bit unbelievable.

The Lady Wolverines play a full-court press all 32 minutes, contesting every shot, every dribble, in every game. They do this with only eight players.

Committing to that style of play with only eight players, with so very little time to rest, don’t they know how difficult that is?

“They don’t have a clue,” said Mehtlan smiling.

Willits Head Coach Eric Mehtlan sits on a basketball as he talks to his players at mid-court on the Wolverine during practice at Willits High School on Monday night. Players are, clockwise from Mehtlan, Mykayla McClellan, Rylee Vigil, Cheyenne Verdot, Alexis Camp, Taylor Buzzard, Kellie Elder, Hailey Riley, Alicia Mehtlan. Assistant Coaches in back of players are Jody Ward, left, and Keith Snyder.

Willits Head Coach Eric Mehtlan sits on a basketball as he talks to his players at mid-court on the Wolverine during practice at Willits High School on Monday night. Players are, clockwise from Mehtlan, Mykayla McClellan, Rylee Vigil, Cheyenne Verdot, Alexis Camp, Taylor Buzzard, Kellie Elder, Hailey Riley, Alicia Mehtlan. Assistant Coaches in back of players are Jody Ward, left, and Keith Snyder.

It is a indisputable axiom of sports — no athlete likes to feel the opposition as a bee buzzing their head.

“When we go to someone’s gym,” said girls assistant coach Jody Ward, “we can tell we aren’t welcome. We’ll never leave you alone. You’re always getting harassed.”

The Willits girls are irritating — thank you very much for the compliment — and Ward can hear it in the voices of the opposing coaches.

“We were playing Kelseyville,” Ward said, “and one of their coaches came over and said, ‘When are you going to take your starters out?’ I said, ‘They are out. Look at our bench. One fouled out. Two others are sitting down. That’s all we got.’”

So you can’t tell one Willits girls from another?

They all play like bees?

Again, thank you very much. Mehtlan has done such a good job selling the uptempo style that this group of seniors has a 49-3 record in their four years at Willits, junior varsity and varsity. They have won four consecutive NCL I championships.

So, yes, make no mistake, the Willits girls do it the hard way. Consider all the back stories.

Their best player, Alicia Mehtlan, suffered a broken bone in her right hand against Middletown Jan. 4. Even though her hand hurts every time she uses it, even if if just to shake hands, Mehtlan has never missed a game and leads the team in scoring at 18.5 points a game. Kayle Seaton, a sophomore, would have been a starter but blew out her knee in volleyball and missed the basketball season. Samantha DelBello, the team’s second-leading scorer, tore her ACL and meniscus and will miss NCS.

Oh yes, and one other thing.

“Five of my eight players,” Mehtlan said, “never played varsity basketball until this season.”

That’s a tall mountain the girls climbed, yet it feels like a speed bump to what the boys faced.

While the girls won league last year, the boys went 9-17. Seven of this year’s eight players were on that team. That record didn’t exactly surprise anyone. Willits first played basketball in 1948, according to Nelson, and had won only three league boys titles (1965, 1971 and 1990).

“Willits isn’t a basketball school,” said Palmer Runberg, one of the two boys captains.

So even though Willits entered its Jan. 11 game at Cloverdale with an 11-4 record, it was Cloverdale the Wolverines were playing. Cloverdale was the basketball school that received strong support from parents.

Cloverdale is a litmus test for a team thinking it can play the game. And with 1:40 left in the game, Cloverdale led, 52-43.

“Our coach was telling us to keep our heads up,” Runberg said. It wasn’t a pep talk as much as it was keep-your-dignity talk.

“Then we scored 12 points in that 1:40,” Runberg said. It was a 12-2 run, a 55-54 Willits victory, and the Wolverines came of age that day, leaving their sketchy boys basketball history behind them.

“We were shocked that it even happened,” Runberg said. “But that’s when we knew we had something.”

Willits Head Coach Duane Nelson conducts practice at Willits High School on Monday. Behind him are, left to right, Daniel Campbell, Will Betts, and Dimitri Betts.

Willits Head Coach Duane Nelson conducts practice at Willits High School on Monday. Behind him are, left to
right, Daniel Campbell, Will Betts, and Dimitri Betts.

A 12-2 run in the last 100 seconds of a game, that’s what champions do. And that’s what the boys became, the fourth Willits boys basketball team to win league.

“We always play schools with a chip on our shoulder,” Runberg said.

That chip will be there Wednesday night when Willits’ boys team, the 13th seed in Division 4, hosts (22-6) Arcata, the fourth seed. The girls, the 11th seed, will travel to Marin Catholic, the 6th seed. Both Wolverine teams will be underdogs. Whatever, the players say.

They made history this year. For the first time at Willits, both the boys and girls basketball teams won league in the same year. Yet, they started the season at 4-5 (girls) and 4-4 (boys). They weren’t supposed to be here because, remember, Willits is a football school with not even one outside basketball hoop on campus.

“But this is what they have.” said Ward as he pounded his heart with his right fist.

It’s always nice to have tenacity. What’s nicer still, are players who can make something of that grit. With 41 victories between them, the Willits boys and girls have shown what many considered impossible.

That right now, at this very moment, there’s no denying it, Willits is a basketball school.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

The Willits mens and women's varsity basketball teams. Left to right seated,  Cheyenne Verdot, Hailey Riley, Cole Jessup, Taylor Buzzard, Rylee Vigil, Dimitri Betts, Mykayla McClellan. Knelling, Alicia Mehtlan and Jon Montez. Standing Alexis Camp, Samantha DelBello, Wyatt Sanderson, Daniel Campbell, Danin Tyrrell, Palmer Runberg, Kellie Elder, and Will Betts.

The Willits girls and boys varsity basketball teams. Left to right seated, Cheyenne Verdot, Hailey Riley, Cole Jessup, Taylor Buzzard, Rylee Vigil, Dimitri Betts, Mykayla McClellan. Kneeling, Alicia Mehtlan and Jon Montez. Standing Alexis Camp, Samantha DelBello, Wyatt Sanderson, Daniel Campbell, Danin Tyrrell, Palmer Runberg, Kellie Elder and Will Betts.