NCS basketball: Vikings set sights on section title

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Montgomery senior Noah Orlik, center, rallies his teammates before an NCS playoff game against Redwood on Feb. 28, 2014. (Photo by Alvin Jornada, The Press Democrat)

Montgomery senior Noah Orlik, center, rallies his teammates before an NCS playoff game against Redwood on Feb. 28, 2014. (Photo by Alvin Jornada, The Press Democrat)

Six local teams are left standing as we head to the semifinal round of the North Coast Section basketball playoffs. One of them, the Archbishop Hanna boys, plays in Division 6, which means the NCS final would be the end of Hanna’s season, win or lose.

The other five teams — the Montgomery boys, and the girls of Santa Rosa, Ukiah, Analy and St. Vincent — have already clinched berths in the subsequent CIF NorCal playoffs. That should take a weight off their shoulders as they prepare for tonight’s games — a very small weight, in some cases.

At Montgomery, nothing short of a section title will be considered a success.

“We’re in NorCals, that’s great,” senior guard Rylan Kobre said before practice in the Monty gym Monday. “But these banners up there, I look at them every day when I stretch. You want to be on one of those banners, have your name on one of those. I think it’s a pretty special thing.”

The Vikings won NCS titles in 1977, 1998, 2003, 2006 and 2011.

TODAY

Division 2 boys semifinal

At Montgomery High School

No. 1 Montgomery (22-5) vs. No. 4 Concord (21-7)

Time: 7 p.m.

The next step for this year’s team, the top seed in Division 2, is a home game against No. 4 Concord. Should the Vikings win, they would play for the division title Friday or Saturday against the winner of the Newark Memorial-Washington semifinal.

This moment has been a long time coming for the Montgomery boys, some of whom have been playing basketball together practically their entire lives. Four of the five current starters — Kobre, Alec Raven, Kiel Long and Sam Averbuck — played together as far back as third grade, along with backup Mason Tinkham.

Kobre, Raven, Long and Averbuck all played varsity at Montgomery as sophomores two years ago, too, forming the core of a young team that surprised almost everyone by going 12-2 in the North Bay League. The next year the Vikings added Noah Orlik, who transferred in from Acalanes High in Lafayette. That was a key addition, because it allowed Kobre to move from point guard to his true position, shooting guard.

By the start of this season, Monty was being hailed as one of the best teams in the section in any division, and a candidate for the state title game.

Coach Tom Fitchie challenged his players by building an extremely difficult preseason schedule that included appearances in the Roy Ghiggeri Invitational at Oakley and the National Prep Classic at Santa Maria. And the challenge got a lot stiffer 11 games into the season when starting center Dakota Row, the tallest kid on the team at 6-foot-8, tore up his knee and was lost for the year.

The Vikings weathered all of it to go a solid 8-4 in the preseason and win their first six games against the NBL. Then came the stunner. Playing at home Jan. 27, Montgomery lost by 10 points to Casa Grande, a team that finished the year 7-7 in league play.

For a team gunning for the top seed in the playoffs, the loss to Casa might have been a broomstick in the spokes. Instead, it became a galvanizing moment for the Vikings.

“Now that we look back on it, I think that’s gonna be a turning point of our season,” Kobre said. “I think it really helped us focus. I wouldn’t say we were going through the motions, but we were playing teams and just killing teams, and we really had to just come together as a squad.”

It wasn’t just that the Gauchos outplayed Montgomery that night.

They did it largely with a zone defense that forced the Vikings to shoot from the perimeter, which became a blueprint for future opponents.

It became clear that the road would get tougher.

“I don’t think we’d be where we are now as a team if that loss didn’t happen,” Orlik said. “We had the No. 1 spot in NCS, really throughout the season. And that was the main thing that we wanted to keep. So after that loss, if that didn’t hurt our chances, we really all of us understood that if we wanted to keep this home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, we couldn’t let another upset like that happen.”

Since then Montgomery has rattled off 11 straight wins, including two in the NBL tournament and two in the playoffs. The Vikings aren’t very tall without Row (Long, at 6-4, is now playing power forward), and they aren’t spectacularly athletic. They can shoot, within a limited range.

“People aren’t gonna look at us and say we’re a 3-point shooting team,” said Fitchie, who noted Averbuck as an exception. “But our field-goal percentage is very high, because I think we take good shots. And that’s something we stress from Day One. And that’s probably been one of our strengths.”

Most important, all that time on the court together has bred a close-knit team that shows a lot of trust on the court. Team trainer Lawrence Phillips has a saying he likes to repeat: “Until proven wrong, why not us?” The Vikings have taken it to heart. They believe that this year, it can be them.

“The base thing is, they’re friends,” Fitchie said. “It’s easier because they know each other. And maybe their roles have changed. … Maybe Kiel was a center before I got him, I don’t know. But they like to play, and they like to practice, they like to be around each other.”

Fitchie has watched Concord on film, and says that while the Minutemen don’t appear to be very deep, they have speed, leaping ability and height across the board; all five Concord starters are 6 feet or taller. Orlik played with two of their best, guards Daniel Solis and Spencer Clark, on an AAU team and confirms the scouting report.

The Vikings are gearing up for this next opponent, even as they hold to their goals of winning an NCS title and possibly playing for a state championship.

“I don’t think we’re gonna lie about it,” Long said. “We’re not looking forward to what teams we could play. I just think we have the end goal of winning NCS, NorCal, then state. … It’s just a checklist of what we want.”

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

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