College Park boys basketball went from being an afterthought in the NCS playoffs, to a surprise NorCal champion.
By ERIK STORDAHL | SportStars
As far as Cinderella teams go, College Park fits the description to a tee.
Barely qualify for state playoffs? Check. Underdog status? Check. Make an unlikely run to the state title game that no one saw coming, winning three tough road games along the way? Triple check.
All the ingredients were there for making a run at history. And that’s just what the Falcons did over a two-week span that culminated in the school’s first state championship appearance on March 23. It’s a remarkable accomplishment — and one that almost didn’t happen.
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Craig Battle was admittedly nervous.
It was Selection Sunday, the day the CIF puts together brackets for its state playoffs. Battle, College Park’s head coach, had a right to be nervous. Usually this day is a ho-hum affair; teams generally already know if they’re going to make it and what seed they’re going to be. Battle was unsure. His team had lost to Montgomery-Santa Rosa in the North Coast Section Div. II quarterfinals, which put its season in serious jeopardy.
“Obviously we were really down because we had high expectations,” Battle said of the premature exit from the section playoffs. “Our goals were set a little higher than that.”
CIF selects four teams from each enrollment division for the state tournament — typically the four semifinalists. But because of the new Open Division, there was a chance College Park could squeeze in. Everything hinged on whether Newark Memorial, one of the best teams in the Bay Area and a Div. II NorCal finalist in 2012, would get the bump. If they did, College Park would make the field.
“To be honest, when we lost (to Montgomery), I thought that was the season,” junior forward Seb Flores said. “I knew a little about the Newark Memorial situation but I didn’t think we’d really have a chance to get into NorCals.”
Senior point guard and captain Mikey Eggleton agreed with Flores but still held out the slightest of hopes.
“I was pretty low, it was almost rock bottom,” Eggleton said of the Montgomery loss. “I thought my high school career was over. But then it was a little bit weird thinking that we could have a shot at still playing, but we didn’t know how big of a chance it was. We just had to wait and hope that Newark Memorial got pulled up.”
A delay in the brackets getting posted only added to the drama.
“I was home and my wife came in and said ‘Hey, I think (the bracket) is up,’” Battle said. “And before I got in there, my phone was ringing off the hook.”
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Newark Memorial got the bump. College Park was placed in the Div. II bracket as the No. 11 seed. Now with new life and a second chance, College Park felt confident. Like it had nothing to lose.
“I think that really brought us together,” Battle said, “because you get that second opportunity. The guys understood the urgency and the focus of what it takes to play in playoff basketball.”
The Falcons found immediate motivation by heading to Chico, the same school that ended their season a year ago with a 74-64 win in the first round of the state tournament. The Falcons appeared dead in the water trailing 34-20 at halftime – Chico closed the half on a 20-2 run.
Then College Park found another gear.
Sophomore forward Joe DeMers led the team with 18 points and Eggleton nailed two clutch free throws with less than 10 seconds remaining to seal a satisfying 55-52 victory.
“That felt really good,” Eggleton said. “That was one of the best feelings just because they’re a really good team and we had to prepare really well. And it helped a lot last year just having to make that long drive and playing against pretty much their exact same team. … Yeah, it was pretty gratifying to get some revenge.”
Battle believed this game was the turning point in College Park’s postseason.
“One of the teams we were really concerned about was Chico,” Battle said. “They’re a good shooting team, they can play uptempo, and they had the smarts to play half-court. … So when we won it, especially after being down, that was a big thing for us. That really boosted our confidence.”
From there College Park entered full-blown upset mode, knocking off No. 3-seed Mt. Eden 67-59 in the quarterfinals and No. 10-seed St. Francis-Mountain View 85-82 in the semifinals. The Falcons continued dancing and marched to the regional title game in Sacramento against Dublin – the wildest game of this crazy and unexpected postseason.
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One of the fascinating things about this College Park team is the youth movement on the roster.
“We got a lot of young guys over here,” Battle said, “and they’ve never been here (to a state final) before.”
Of the 14 Falcons on the roster, seven are sophomores, including DeMers, who’s also the star pitcher of College Park’s baseball team.
“I didn’t really expect it that much,” Eggleton said of making a run with such a young roster. “These guys, they play really well and they play with a lot of confidence, so it kind of makes sense.”
And maybe it makes sense that College Park’s opponent in the regional title game was Dublin, the No. 1 seed and a team featuring 11 seniors on its 14-man roster. The Gaels feature a nine-player rotation – all seniors.
Dublin also had something College Park doesn’t: size. Eric Nielsen (6-foot-9) and Spencer Hollie (6-5) formed one of the more potent front lines in the Bay Area. College Park’s tallest player? Sophomore Steven Daily standing 6-foot-3.
So with a heavy amount of experience and a significant height advantage, Dublin was the presumed favorite. Only it didn’t matter to College Park as they stormed out to a 14-point lead in the first half. They kept Dublin at arm’s length with solid shooting beyond the arc, hitting 10 3-pointers in the game. The Falcons also out-hustled Dublin for loose balls and fought for extra possessions just like they had done all year.
But if there’s one glaring weakness for College Park, it’s free throw shooting, and with a minute left and College Park leading by eight, the game turned into a free throw contest.
Senior Peter Schoemann missed three of four from the stripe with 21 seconds left and Dublin miraculously tied the game with a clutch performance from JoJo McGlaston, who drove to the basket at will down the stretch and finished with a game-high 35 points.
The game went into overtime and the score was tied with eight seconds left when Schoemann buried the game-winning 3-pointer giving College Park a 93-90 win.
“My confidence was a little down,” said Schoemann, who missed his first nine 3’s of the game before making the game-winner. “I put my head down in the huddle and Coach Battle started yelling at me. … He’s been saying all year just to keep shooting. If I miss 12 in a row that if I make the next one, that’s all that matters.”
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The CIF Division II state title game featured another first-timer, Redondo Union-Redondo Beach. Out-sized once again, College Park used its toughness and hustle to build a 12-5 lead early in the second quarter. But Redondo rallied and this time College Park didn’t have an answer for a comeback.
Redondo out-rebounded the Falcons 48-31 and College Park committed a ghastly 20 turnovers as Redondo Union won the state championship 54-47.
The Falcons held their heads high in the awards presentation and in the post-game press conference.
“It’s one of those things you dream about a little bit as a kid,” Eggleton said about playing in the state championship. “Throughout my high school career I didn’t know if I would ever have the opportunity for it to become a reality and then it actually did and we were very lucky to have this opportunity. It was a lot of fun playing in this arena with all these fans and everything and all this support. It was pretty amazing.”
But with a young team on his hands, Battle hopes to make another run at a state title next year.
“We got a taste of this,” Battle said, “and we like it, so we want to come back.”
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