With steadfast determination, Monte Vista brought home its first state championship.
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
It was decided over waffles.
On the morning after the Monte Vista High boys basketball team won its first North Coast Section Division I championship since 2009, the Mustangs players met for Saturday breakfast. They had a choice to make.
Because they didn’t meet the criteria to be eligible for inclusion in the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional Open Division — an elite state championship bracket featuring top teams and no enrollment restrictions — the Mustangs, who were 28-1 on the season, would need to opt in to the bracket. Otherwise, they would stay and compete in the large school Division I bracket.
Monte Vista coach Nick Jones wanted to leave it up to the players. And in the end, it came down to the seniors — eight of them, including the entire starting five.
“We came together as a group, us seniors, and we decided that we wanted a state championship more than anything,” senior center Spencer Rust said. “And we believed we had the best chance of doing that in Division I.”
Exactly two weeks later, the Mustangs woke up as state champions.
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Trevor John kept getting open. So he kept shooting. And the shots kept falling.
In fact, Monte Vista’s 6-foot-3 wing could not have looked more comfortable than when he was raining 3-point shots with ease during the opening minutes of the Div. I state championship on March 28 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. John sank his first two shots of the game and gave the Mustangs a 6-0 lead just 80 seconds into game time against Centennial-Corona.
He’d go on to sink five 3-pointers in the first period, and hit a sixth two minutes into the second period that put the Mustangs ahead 26-13. Monte Vista never trailed in the game and won the school’s first state title with a 66-55 victory.
“I think John hitting those 3’s early really kind of settled everybody in,” Jones said after the game. “(It) just kind of got everyone thinking that ‘OK, we’re here. Now we can play basketball.’”
Playing basketball is what the Monte Vista starting five has been doing together since they were in sixth grade.
All five seniors — point guard Grant Jackson, off guard Rishi Satoor, forwards John and Brendan Pedley, and center Rust — have grown up together and become extremely close knit.
“I can say this without any doubt. All five starters are really each other’s best friends in the world,” John said following the team’s 59-51 overtime win over Freedom-Oakely in the CIF Northern Regional final. “We know each other like the back of our hands and it really plays into our favor.”
And so when John opened the game on his torrid shooting pace, everything else fell into place for the Mustangs.
“He finds space and he knocks down shots, that’s what he does,” Rust said of John. “It got us off to an early lead, and it gave us confidence as a team.”
Confidence has never really been in short supply for this group of seniors.
The start of this championship run began on Feb. 22, 2013, when the Mustangs were ousted in their NCS Div. I playoff opener, a 68-62 quarterfinal loss to Freedom. It was a season-ending loss for Monte Vista, and it forced the seniors to re-commit to what they wanted.
It was then that they decided they were good enough to win state. That was a mantra that they never let go of for more than a year.
“After that (season-ending loss) we came together and said we wanted to make something special out of our senior season.” Rust said. “We’d been talking about it since we were freshman, even before then when we’d come to games and see what former Monte Vista teams had been able to accomplish.
“We wanted that to be us. We knew we had the potential to do it.”
Jones probably knew it too.
It was just his second season at the helm of his alma mater, but the coach was no stranger to having championship-level teams. In the 2010-11 season, Jones led Castro Valley to a Div. I NCS championship and reached the regional final with the Trojans before being upset by De La Salle — the team they’d beat just two weeks earlier for the NCS title.
Jones ended up being the perfect guide for a group of seniors on a mission.
“As a player, he was fiery and he was a leader,” Monte Vista athletic director Craig Bergman said of Jones. “He wasn’t the biggest guy, and wasn’t the fastest guy, but he always found a way to get it done. And he’s kind of taken that approach with coaching.”
Monte Vista’s players weren’t the biggest or fastest guys in several of their 32 wins on the season. They’d find a way to get it done, though. Almost every time, it was with defense and rebounding.
The Mustangs held opponents to less than 50 points in 25 of their 32 wins. In 11 of those wins, they held opponents to less than 40 points. The Centennial team Monte Vista beat in the state final entered the game averaging 76.4 points per game. The Mustangs held them to 55 (21 of which came at the free throw line). The Huskies shot 28 percent from the field for the game.
Defense was the team’s calling card, but adapting to its opponent’s defense was what allowed for Monte Vista’s biggest breakthrough on the season.
“We needed to get better at handling pressure,” Jones said. “I go back to the Freedom game that ended our season a year ago, we were a mess against pressure. We really focused on, ‘Let’s get stronger. Let’s get better with the ball. Let’s beat each other up in practice, and just get better with the ball.’ They all committed to that, not just our guards, and we’ve really handled pressure well this year.”
Centennial’s calling card was its full-court pressure and trapping defense. The Huskies were able to force Monte Vista into 17 turnovers, but only seven during the second half when they most needed to cut into the lead. Also, Centennial’s aggressive defense and trap attempts were often the reason that John found so many open shots early as Monte Vista.
It was a historic win, not just for Monte Vista, but for public schools in Contra Costa County. The Mustangs became just the county’s second public school boys team to win a state title, and the first since Northgate-Walnut Creek won in 1995 behind coach now-De La Salle coach Frank Allocco.
“They did something very special,” Jones said. “I can’t say enough. … The seniors set the tone in the offseason last year. The chemistry has been phenomenal. The non-seniors have gotten on board and bought in. It’s been a great group to be around.”
But it all comes back to the seniors. Especially the starters.
When the decision to stay in Div. I was sealed over waffles, each senior knew that there could be no regrets — that anything less than a state title would be unacceptable.
“A few times throughout the (state final) we came together in a huddle,” Rust said. “We reminded each other how we wanted this for so long, and we’re best friends, and we’re going to do it for each other and we want it more than (Centennial).
“And it showed. We won. It’s amazing.”
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