Unshakable belief between coach, players and community led San Ramon Valley to its first state title
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Two flights of stairs below court level at Haas Pavilion on the Cal-Berkeley campus, San Ramon Valley High point guard Keith Smith is leaning against a hallway wall as he prepares to answer questions for a postgame interview.
After playing all 40 minutes of a double-overtime California Interscholastic Federation Division I State Championship victory — the first in his school’s rich basketball history — it’s the least the wall can do to provide the Wolves’ point guard some much-needed rest.
But tell the 7,000-plus fans who watched the 79-71 San Ramon Valley win unfold, and many might fight the imagery, asking: Could it be that Smith was the one holding up the wall?
This story is about leaning, and support.
For 33 games of the 2014-15 season, the Wolves leaned upon their 10 seniors. Perhaps none carried the load more than Smith, who cranked out one of his greatest games on the biggest stage with 20 points, eight assists and six rebounds against Chino Hills. But when he needed support, fellow seniors like Christian Fuca, Kyle Spackman, Gregg Polosky, Drew Kunde and J.J. Koski were all there to make big play after big play.
“It’s cliché to say they’re family, but that’s who they are,” San Ramon Valley coach Brian Botteen said of the seniors in the immediate aftermath of the state championship victory. “These guys have been so close for so many years. The first day in summer camp when we watched them as freshmen, they beat our seniors in a pick-up game. You knew there was something there because of their cohesiveness. They’re just family. That’s why they were able to pull it out tonight.”
Borghi withdrew his name from consideration for the job after witnessing the volatile meeting in which the community demanded the administration — which included Raynor, who remained the school’s athletic director — show loyalty toward Botteen. Not long after, Botteen found himself enjoying a baseball game at Evans Diamond on the Cal-Berkeley campus, in the shadow of Haas Pavilion. There with his wife, Botteen said they talked about returning in March for a state championship.
“We sat over there for an hour and just dreamt it,” the coach said.
That dream never died.
If Botteen hadn’t become the coach, then maybe the Wolves’ bus would’ve headed straight back toward Danville after a nonleague win at Berkeley High just two nights before Christmas. Instead, it detoured three blocks east to park outside of Haas Pavilion.
“We stopped right out front and Coach told us, ‘We’re going to be here in a few months,’” Smith said. “Ever since then we’ve just been going up and up.”
Almost three months to the night, the Wolves took the floor for a state championship final for just the third time, and the first since 1992. Chino Hills, an extremely talented team from the southeastern suburb of Los Angeles, came north as the No. 8 ranked team in the state and a favorite to beat the Wolves despite it being the school’s first state final appearance.
“The community gave us a chance, but after that we were kind of the underdogs,” Smith said. “I like the role, though. It feels a lot better.”
That’s because it was one of comfort. It’s the role San Ramon Valley embraced all season as it fought for respect in the East Bay Athletic League amongst perennial state-power De La Salle-Concord and defending CIF Div. I state champion Monte Vista — the Wolves cross-town arch rival. San Ramon Valley finished third in the EBAL and exited the North Coast Section Div. I playoffs in the semifinals after losing to De La Salle for the third time this season. Monte Vista would beat De La Salle 50-49 in the NCS final.
The Wolves continued to lean on each other, bracing one another for one last gasp. As the No. 3 seed in the regional tournament, they won their first two games by 14 and 15 points, respectively. They were then able to grind out a NorCal championship victory, 43-39 over Woodcreek-Roseville at Sleep Train Arena on March 21, leading them to Haas Pavilion where they endured 11 lead changes, eight ties and two extra periods before finally coming out on top.
“We’ve been in a position all year where people overlook us,” Botteen said after the state final. “We remain unapologetic. Our guys have stepped up. Chino Hill is a helluva team. We knew we were in for a dogfight.
“Our guys just have an indomitable spirit about them. … They just stepped up when they needed to the most.”
San Ramon Valley trailed by as much as seven points late in the second quarter against Chino Hills, but closed the half with a momentum-grabbing 3-pointer by Kunde with 15 seconds left. Fuca, who was held scoreless in the first 16 minutes, opened the second half with a 3-pointer. He’d finish the game with 18 points. The Wolves closed the third quarter on an 11-3 run, and a basket by Polosky to open the fourth put SRV up by seven.
Chino Hills and star junior swingman Lonzo Ball would not go quietly. The Huskies rallied back and took a 60-59 lead minutes before Ball fouled out with 3:18 left to play. He had 30 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks when he exited. Chino Hills would lead only one more time, 63-61 with 57 seconds to play. Fuca tied the game with two free throws 17 seconds later and San Ramon Valley never trailed in either overtime.
It was only fitting that five different San Ramon players scored in the second overtime to put the Huskies away. Smith, Fuca, Kunde, Polosky and Spackman. The last two both finished double-doubles in points and rebounds. The 6-10 Polosky had 12 points, 10 boards, and the 6-7 Spackman delivered 15 and 15.
“Honestly, I think we felt like we had (the game) the whole time,” Smith said, leaning up against that wall. “We just love each other. You walk into our gym and it says ‘Home of Champions‘ not ‘School of Champions.‘ It really is a home there.”