By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
A year ago at this time, attending practice was essentially optional for members of the De Anza High basketball team.
“People didn’t show up to practice and they’d still get to play in the games because we just didn’t have any players,” said Steve Evans, a senior point guard for the Dons this season.
That mentality changed last April when Mark DeLuca assumed the head coaching job at De Anza. DeLuca, who had a strong run as the head coach at Pinole Valley from 1998-2007, didn’t come in with a goal representing wins and losses. He simply wanted to set the foundation for a self-sustaining, successful basketball program “” at a school that didn’t even have it’s own gymnasium.
In his first year, the Dons have a healthy roster of 11 guys. The junior varsity is also at full strength.
Oh, and did we mention the varsity Dons were 16-5 heading into Jan. 31? Furthermore, four of the team’s five losses have been to teams who were winning their leagues heading into February. Also, it warrants mentioning that they are accomplishing this without a home gymnasium, borrowing gym space at Salesian High (where DeLuca works as the Dean of Students) and Helms Middle School.
“It’s absolutely been a ton of fun,” DeLuca said on Jan. 27 after a loss at El Cerrito, the Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League’s first-place team. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how quickly they’ve been to respond to discipline and organization and trying to do things the right way. I’ve really felt bad Steve Evans and Rishard Williams, those guys have had to endure a lot of different types of coaches and programs. I’m glad to see them have some success.”
Some success feels like an understatement considering where the De Anza program has been the past few seasons. Since winning 16 games in the 2006-07 season, the Dons haven’t managed more than five wins in any season. Over the past three seasons, De Anza’s won just three ACCAL games.
This year’s team reached four league wins with a 76-41 win over Richmond on Jan. 20. They have a 6-2 record against other Division II teams in the North Coast Section, and should have very little problem punching a postseason ticket for the first time since 2007.
“I was just hoping that we’d maybe get a .500 record,” DeLuca said. “We always had a goal in mind to make the playoffs. But I was just hoping we’d be .500 and learn about how to do things the right way. These guys have just taken off with a lot of the structure and accountability that I’ve put in.
“They wanted someone to believe in them. I believe in them, and they believe in me.”
De Anza is getting consistent play throughout it’s roster, but most of its firepower comes from the senior duo of Evans and Williams, and junior Craig Salmond. All three are averaging double figures in points with Williams leading the way at 14.8 per game.
The team may actually be without Williams for a short amount of time as he recovers from a severe concussion he suffered during the Jan. 27 loss to El Cerrito. And Evans was quick to point out that the team is equipped to endure that loss under DeLuca.
At the very least, they have players and the discipline in place to do so.
“(DeLuca) has just changed the program,” Evans said. “Everything is just a lot better. … And if you don’t practice, you don’t play. You’ve got to be there, and you’ve got to go hard every day.”
DeLuca said he was able to see the growth in his team fairly early in the season during a lopsided Dec. 30 nonleague loss to De La Salle, the defending California Interscholastic Federation Division I Northern Regional champion.
“I saw us at the end of a blowout game, taking charges and trying to run offense,” DeLuca said. “That showed me a lot.”
After a Jan. 31 meeting against Alameda, the Dons closed out their season with a string of four ACCAL games beginning with second-place Berkeley on Feb. 3. They lost to the Yellowjackets by 13 in the first meeting on Jan. 10. The remaining three games are all against teams De Anza has beaten.
The program’s high water mark for wins over the last decade is 20, a number reached by the 2005-06 team. Led by Darius Foster, that team finished as the NCS Division III runner-up and lost in the CIF NorCal semifinals. Eclipsing that number isn’t necessarily a goal, but it certainly seems a reasonable possibility with the path the Dons are on.
As Evans stood outside the locker room following the loss at El Cerrito, he acknowledged the team was frustrated with the loss “” something they may not have felt a year ago.
Practice is no longer optional. Neither is accepting losing.
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