In the wake of Berkeley’s biggest victory in a decade, Yellowjackets coach Mark DeLuca opened up
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
OAKLEY — Gathered in the back corner of the Freedom High locker room, the Berkeley boys basketball team was a boiling mixture of adrenaline, excitement and boyish giddiness.
Less than five minutes earlier, senior wing Zach Copeland had knifed through the lane and scooped in a game-winning layup beneath the long arm of 6-foot-10 Freedom center Kendall McIntosh. The shot fell with just two seconds remaining and lifted the Yellowjackets to a 69-68 win in the Feb. 27 North Coast Section Division I quarterfinal.
Furthermore, the victory propelled Berkeley into the NCS semifinals for the first time since 2005. Despite how the team fares in its March 4 semifinal at top-seed Monte Vista, it’s already qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional tournament which begins March 10.
The corner of the locker room buzzed. Mark DeLuca, the affable and boisterous 26-year coaching veteran, finally asked the players for a brief moment’s focus while he offered some quick thoughts.
First off, the second-year Berkeley coach iterated just how proud he was of the team.
“You just accomplished something great,” he told them. “The first Berkeley team in 10 years that will go to (the state tournament). You may not grasp it now, but you’ll look back on this moment with pride.”
“I’m really glad we won, because it was going to be much harder to tell after a loss. But four weeks ago, I nearly died.”
For the first time, his players heard about the night of Jan. 31. That was the night Mark DeLuca was at his home with some friends, when he suddenly began talking incoherently before falling face-first into a china cabinet. He was rushed to the hospital. He couldn’t walk, or talk. He could barely breathe.
It wasn’t a heart attack, but a severe arrhythmia caused by hypertension. After a short procedure and plenty of tests, DeLuca was told he wouldn’t need any stents implanted to improve blood flow. However, he was advised not to coach.
“That was on Saturday. I was at practice on Monday,” he said.
DeLuca, who spends his days as the Student Life Director at El Sobrante Christian High, had his assistants take over larger roles at practice. However, relinquishing the sideline on game nights wasn’t happening.
There he was the night of the 27th, ranting and gyrating with every ebb and flow of the contest. The Yellowjackets scored the first five points of the game, but a 5-2 advantage would be their only lead until late in the third quarter when a layup by Sean Spikes provided a 52-51 advantage. Berkeley held the one-point margin after three quarters, but Freedom recovered and was up 66-62 with 1:42 left to play.
Spikes sparked the team’s 7-2 run by converting a three-point play after having stolen the ball under the Berkeley basket immediately following a Freedom defensive rebound. Two defensive stops later, Berkeley’s Bryan Morris converted two free throws to put the Yellowjackets up 67-66 with less than 30 seconds to play.
Freedom guard Nick Evans slashed through the lane and got a layup to fall with 12 seconds left, setting up a timeout for DeLuca to call the final play.
“We just ran a little bit of a triple screen play for Zach,” DeLuca said. “We told Zach to just get to the rim and everybody chase. That’s been a great play for us all year long. Shoot the ball and chase, that’s what Berkeley does.”
The Yellowjackets had to inbound the ball at the far baseline. Copeland brought it up the floor and didn’t waste any time.
“They put the ball in my hands, and my coaches and teammates trusted in me to make a play,” the hero said. “I was just trying to get it under (McIntosh’s) arm so he couldn’t block it. And it went in for me. … Biggest shot of my career.”
Which brings us back to the locker room, where DeLuca’s secret has brought a sobering moment to the postgame party. It’a a moment he could’ve milked. But DeLuca isn’t interested in that stuff, and it wasn’t necessary. Here’s what he said instead.
“Ok everybody come in closer. You’re all going to want your phones for this,” the players stirred, grabbed for their phones. “Somebody call out a song. I’m gonna rap.”
And for about 10 seconds, the coach seemingly dared his heart to stop him as he began to rap. Rapping turned into yelling as his teammates whooped and hollered and jumped around their coach. He finished triumphantly with his hands raised. The team huddled with fists in the air and committed to at least two more weeks together.
As the players began to exit the locker room, DeLuca stood in exhaustion.
“I’m really proud of the players and the coaches,” he said. “It’s the first time since 2005 somebody from Berkeley has made it to NorCals. The last team to do it was led by one of my best friends, Mike Gragnani. He was looking down on us from Heaven. I couldn’t be happier for the players and coaches. I can’t even talk right now.”
Gragnani’s connection to Berkeley and DeLuca is eerie in the fact that the former coach died of a heart attack in January 2011. He was the varsity coach at Lincoln-S.F. at the time. Gragnani was 50 when he passed. DeLuca is 48.
So why forge on?
“I know this sounds corny, but none of us are promised tomorrow,” DeLuca said. “So if i’m going out, I’m going out on the sideline.”