Benefield: It’s a whole new season for Rancho Cotate basketball teams

The Rancho Cotate girls varsity basketball team watches the junior varsity girls finish their game at Rancho Cotate High School, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

The Rancho Cotate girls varsity basketball team watches the junior varsity girls finish their game at Rancho Cotate High School, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

‘Looking at it on paper, we shouldn’t win a game this year,” Rancho Cotate girls’ basketball coach Mario Newton told me. “We should be like a practice squad for a lot of these (NBL) teams, right?”

Not the most resounding endorsement from a head coach, right?

Wrong.

Mario Newton believes in his Cougars.

On paper is one thing. On the court is another. On paper you can’t see hustle or desire or joy, things the Cougars have in abundance.

On paper you can’t see players get popped in the mouth during a press break drill, stand up, smile and ask for more.
“They play hard for me,” Newton said.

But Newton isn’t new to the game of basketball. He also sees the Cougars’ 0-14 NBL record last season. And the 0-14 league record in 2012-13, the year before he took over. He sees a 9-person roster that has only three returning varsity players. Did I say nine? Make that eight. One player will be out until January after sustaining a concussion.

Newton is so short-handed, he can’t run full drills without augmenting his team with two players who graduated last year.

But there is a certain underdog joy that Newton exudes. His players have it too.

“We will sneak up on people,” he said.

Rancho Cotate is hoping to do a lot of surprising this season. And there is nowhere to go but up on the hardwood.

The Rancho boys’ team? They didn’t win a league game last year either. That’s 0-28 in league basketball for the Cougars.

It was a pretty long, dark winter of basketball last year at the Ranch.

“In life, you have to fail before you succeed,” said boys’ coach Dennis Magatelli. “They tasted the bottom and I think they want to get to the top.”

The top of the NBL may be pushing it, but Magatelli expects his Cougars to do a bit of sneaking up on people, just like the girls’ squad.

“We are a work in progress,” he said.

The boys’ team does not have great size or great numbers. Magatelli’s crew is down to 11 after he lost one player because of poor grades and two other players walked away.

It takes a special kind of kid to keep at it after an 0-14 season. Magatelli gets it. That’s why he likes the guys he’s got.

“I’m down to 11 and I’m fine with that,” he said.

Experience will be key for Magatelli, which is ironic on its face. Experience? Do you really want kids to remember too much from last season?

Experience can be a yoke around your neck if the experience was bad. It’s a tough thing to keep kids up, keep them coming to practice, keep their head in the game when the losses pile up.

But Magatelli likes his core group: Senior center/forward Jake Howard, junior center/forward Gunner Mefferd and junior guard Alec Wong.

And they are young, too: Three seniors, seven juniors and one sophomore.

The younger they are, the better they wash clean any memory of last year.

(See more photos from Tuesday’s Rancho Cotate girls basketball game)

That’s why Newton — who returned just three players from last year’s team — calls his team’s youth both a blessing and a curse. They are young, but many of them — four sophomores, one freshman and four seniors — didn’t live through that 0-14 season.

But senior guard Jessica Baumann did. She knows what it felt like to hustle and scrape and never win a league game. Not one.

Baumann won’t forget it and she knows other teams won’t either. But she’s OK with that.

“People are going to be, ‘OK, easy team, no big deal,’ just from the get-go,” she said.

Until they meet these new Cougars, that is. That’s when Baumann uses that term “get-go” again. When does she expect the Cougars to notch their first league win since 2012? From the get-go.

“First game,” she said.

Who do you play, she’s asked.

“Who cares? Doesn’t matter,” she said.

Newton loves it. The second-year coach doesn’t wear last year’s losses like a yoke. He’s looking forward and the view is good from here.

“I look at some of the girls coming up, in the next couple of years I think we are going to be a competitive team,” he said.

But they aren’t there yet. Newton knows this. He’s working on them. And even at eight players, he’s not afraid to wear them out. He has to. His starting players have to be fitter than every team they play because that’s all they’ve got.

“I’m having to work these girls to death,” Newton said. “You need to be on the floor more.”

There’s not a lot of resting at a Rancho practice. There are no long lines between drills to hide and put your hands on your knees. These girls are off and running.

Except when they are clearing their own court.

Remember that work ethic Newton talked about?

Just to start practice Monday night, the girls squad had to clear the gym floor of hundreds of chairs, a podium, tables — accoutrements of a fall sports awards ceremony. As league-champ boys soccer players filed out of the gym, basking in their record-setting season, the girls team loaded chairs in stacks higher than their heads and cleared the floor.

It was a poignant scene, really. A team flush with pride in their first-place season leaving behind a gaggle of athletes who finished last, doing the dirty work to clear the floor and get down to business.

The Cougars aren’t afraid of work. And they are hungry for wins.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield.