By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Come over here, guys. That’s what Darren Nelson said to his team on the night of Feb. 15. The night after Rincon Valley Christian’s 15-game winning streak was snapped by Calistoga. His players had just finished their warm-ups at RVC’s gym. Come to center court, Nelson said to the boys. Everybody here? Good. Dad, go ahead.
Standing along the gym’s southeast wall, Ted Nelson hit the light switch. The gym went dark, pitch black.
“How many people do you see?” Nelson said.
Of course there were none. How many distractions? None. Nelson, 24, wanted the Eagles to know they were alone. There was no clapping. No adoration. No standing ovations. No one calling out their name. No one boasting, hey, we lost last night but we’re still 24-4 and we’re golden and ain’t we purty.
With the gym dark, with nothing or no one to be seen and only Nelson to be heard, he dramatically made this point: We need to re-apply ourselves. We need to refocus. We need to remember high school basketball is a 32-minute game, from first tip to final buzzer. We’re good but we can’t just play some of the time.
“You can’t just flip on the switch whenever you feel like it,” Nelson said.
“And then your dad turned the lights back on?” I asked.
“Yes,” Nelson said a bit sheepishly, “but don’t make it sound cheesy. It was as much, if not more, about me than them. The night before was the first time I straight-up overlooked an opponent and assumed we would do OK. I promised them I would never do that again.”
In fact, the night before, minutes after Calistoga had won, 51-44, Nelson held one of the shortest post-game speeches ever given by a coach. It was only two sentences.
“I’m sorry,” Nelson said to the team. “I love you guys.”
He was apologizing for not preparing them. RVC forward Garrett Robert, the NCL II Player of the Year, would like people to know the players had something to do with it, too. The Eagles were on a 15-game winning streak at the time.
“It’s hard not to (get overconfident) when you are winning game after game, rolling by everyone in your league by 20 points,” said Robert, one of RVC’s three team captains. “It’s hard not to take a day off.”
RVC had beaten Calistoga twice already, by 11 and 24 points, and the game was the perfect harmonic convergence for Calistoga, as it played well and RVC was sub-par, with four of its five starters fouling out and the fifth with four fouls.
“We found out we weren’t unstoppable,” said guard Cavin Hawkins, another team captain.
Overconfidence is not a new concept in sports. It can, has and will always happen in every sport at every level. How a coach gets his team back to center bubble is the task that often defines a coach’s skill and potential success. A lot of coaches can teach Xs and Os but not every coach can get his players to buy into it.
“You either get bitter or you get better,” said Nelson of what the Calistoga defeat would mean.
And so what did it mean?
“We had our best practice of the year that night,” Nelson said.
The Eagles have played only one game since Calistoga, a 22-point victory over the California School for the Deaf last Saturday in an NCS quarterfinal game. One victory doesn’t wipe the slate clean any more than one shot defines a player’s skill.
“It still hurts when I think about it,” Nelson said of the Calistoga loss.
It won’t hurt as much, Nelson knows, if RVC plays every game hard the rest of the way. That the Eagles did so in 28 of the 29 games they have played provides a strong indication that they can do it again tonight against Laytonville in an NCS semifinal. RVC certainly has the weapons, even a statistical oddity in fact.
RVC has seven players 6-foot-2 or taller, an atypical height collection given the school has only 161 students. All five of its starters are at least honorable mention NCL II All-League.
James Leng (6-foot-4) is an Honorable Mention. Paul Meihaus (6-foot-3) is second-team. Zacchaeus Dance (6-foot-6) and Hawkins (5-foot-10) are first-team. Robert (6-foot-4) is Player of the Year.
With pride Nelson boasts of Robert’s points-per-game average — a not very sensational 14.5. Why? Robert has never played a full game this season, said Ted Nelson. Robert averages 24 minutes a game. That’s just three quarters. In fact, no RVC starter averages more than 24 minutes a game.
Darren Nelson doesn’t believe in padding a player’s statistics. Or padding a player’s ego. A player earns a compliment. A player knows what comes first at RVC and it isn’t him. It’s the team.
“Some of the best games Garrett has had this season,” said Nelson, a former SRJC guard, “is when he’s scored around 10 points.”
As there is no CIF state champion in Division 6, RVC at most has only two games left in its season — tonight and, if they win, Saturday night. The final opponent could be Ferndale (12-11), which is also playing tonight against St. Bernard Catholic (14-12). RVC is the first seed in Division 6, Ferndale’s No. 2, St. Bernard’s No. 3. Ferndale has beaten RVC in the past two NCS Division 6 finals. That RVC would like to see Ferndale again is a drooling given.
“So how tough is it going to be,” I asked, “ not to overlook Laytonville (14-12)?”
Forming a crescent around this guy with the notebook, Garrett, Dance and Hawkins all heard the question at the same time. All three players shook their head at the same time. All three players responded at the same time. All three players said just one word. Like they had been rehearsing. It was freaky.
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.