Kerry Benefield: Montgomery back for more in CIF tournament

Silver lining. The Montgomery Vikings see a silver lining in their 71-57 loss to powerhouse El Cerrito in the North Coast Section final Saturday night.

Yes, the No. 2 Vikings lost handily to the dominating No. 1 Gauchos of El Cerrito and in a fashion no one would have scripted. But ask senior Jack Fitchie and he’ll tell you the Vikes are playing their best basketball of the season — a season that got just a smidge longer Sunday afternoon when the NorCal tournament bracket was announced.

The Vikings, who were slotted as a No. 3 seed in the CIF tournament, drew a bye for Wednesday’s first round and will play Saturday at home against sixth-seeded Cosumnes Oaks at 6 p.m.

“This group has surprised a lot of people,” he said of the Vikings. “We have gotten better all year. We are playing some of our best basketball.”

And the game against El Cerrito might just have been that taste of the big leagues that the Vikings need to ready their run in the state tournament.

The Vikings picked a fine time to peak.

After racing out of the starting gate early this season, Montgomery went on a six-game, post-holiday skid after point guard Michael Septimo injured his knee.

But the Vikings rallied and eventually grabbed a share of the North Bay League title. Still, those early losses and a tight league race have the Vikings carrying a bulky 21-11 record into the NorCals.

But “into the NorCals” is the key phrase here. Teams may have posted better overall records this season, but the only way those teams are going to see action Wednesday night in the first round of the CIF state tourney is to buy a ticket.

The Vikings, on the other hand, fought their way through and over every hurdle this season and aren’t ready to hang up their high tops. As their buddies are dusting off their baseball uniforms and moving on to spring sports, the Vikes still have some hoops left in them.

“They’ll be focused,” veteran coach Tom Fitchie said. “It’s not going to be hard.”

“They know not many teams are still playing.”

Fitchie called this particularly squad “a funny team.”

I don’t think he meant funny ha ha, but rather funny as in inscrutable, a tough read — at least for opponents.

Like Saturday night against El Cerrito, the Gauchos were successful for stretches in denying stellar point guard Septimo the ball, and the Vikes gave up some costly turnovers. But the Vikings, relying on the same players who stepped up when Septimo was out with his knee injury — Jack Fitchie and Zac Merriken — stayed in the game until early in the fourth quarter.

And when standout center Erik Poulsen went to the bench with three fouls in the second quarter, instead of faltering without their big man, the Vikes picked up their level of play.

“We played (them) even or even better,” Fitchie said.

Senior Matt Hyman was huge against a tall, very athletic Gauchos squad, he said.

“Ten rebounds against a team like that? That is a great achievement,” he said.

And despite the foul trouble, Poulsen still managed to lead the team with 21 points.

“Erik did his thing, as always,” Septimo, who chipped in a hard-fought 17 points, said.

“I think there are a lot of people out there who didn’t think we could hang with a team like that,” Poulsen said. “It’s definitely a pretty big confidence boost going into NorCals.”

“I think we could make a state run,” he said.

And Septimo, ever the leader, said the Vikings will benefit from facing a talented team like El Cerrito deep into the postseason, even though they walked out of the gym with a loss.

“It was a great experience for us. They were a very good team,” he said. “We played our hearts out. That’s all you can really ask.”

Poulsen agreed. The big man said that when Septimo went down just before league play started and the Vikings saw their losses mounting, it was unclear what kind of season this would be.

Even with an invite to the state tournament, it’s still not clear what kind of season this will be for the Vikings.

But Montgomery’s players have six days, starting today, to craft their own ending and write the final chapter to this season’s story — a story they hope will read just the way they want it to.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

Montgomery's Michael Septimo holds back El Cerrito's Sayeed Pridgett during the North Coast Sections Division 2 championship game Saturday. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Montgomery’s Michael Septimo holds back El Cerrito’s Sayeed Pridgett during the North Coast Sections Division 2 championship game Saturday. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)