Story by CHACE BRYSON | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH
It was November of 2013 when Mark DeLuca sat in the Berkeley High gym “” roughly an hour before his first exhibition game as the Yellowjackets boys basketball coach “” and spoke about the opportunity he’d been given.
A skilled motivator, DeLuca had turned a handful of struggling programs into winning ones over the years. But he knew Berkeley was different.
“I’m not necessarily taking over a program that’s down,” DeLuca said that night in 2013. “I’m just trying to restore Berkeley back to its one-time greatness. And I’m excited about that opportunity”
A little more than two years later, in his third season with the Yellowjackets, DeLuca will be coaching in his first California Interscholastic Federation State Championship tonight. Berkeley (24-8) will take on Crespi-Encino (32-4) in the CIF Div. I final at 8 p.m. at Arco Arena in Sacramento. It’s the program’s first state final appearance in the modern era.
Berkeley, which didn’t even reach the North Coast Section Div. I final, took a most vengeful path to the Northern Regional crown. The Yellowjackets knocked off Monte Vista-Danville (the team which defeated them in the NCS semifinals) before winning the NorCal final 61-51 over Menlo-Atherton-Atherton (the team which knocked them from the ranks of the unbeaten back in late December).
The Yellowjackets certainly seemed comfortable in their first trip to Sleep Train Arena for the NorCal final. They used a 9-3 run to take a 40-37 lead at the end of the third quarter against Menlo-Atherton, and then never trailed in the fourth.
“There wasn’t one possession where we had a letdown in effort,” DeLuca said of Berkeley’s regional championship performance. “It’s rare that you play an entire game and a player doesn’t take a play off or two. There wasn’t one possession where that happened, and it was beautiful to see.”
Berkeley finished with four players in double figures scoring, led by senior guard Niles Malone’s 18 points. Hello seniors Bryan Morris and BJ Monroe contributed 17 and 14, respectively,. Junior forward Sean Spikes added 11 and nine rebounds.
Crespi advanced to the state final with a 66-63 overtime win over Redondo Union-Redondo Beach. The Celts are led by 6-foot-4, USC-bound guard De’Anthony Melton. Melton averages 19.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.5 steals a game. His partner in production is sophomore Brandon Williams. The 6-foot guard averages 15.7 points, five rebounds and three assists.
“Crespi is an outstanding team,” DeLuca said. “They remind me a lot of the state-championship Salesian teams of the past. “¦ I’ve been saying that they will probably have the best two players on the floor, but that we’ll have the next best eight players who will play in the game.”
Despite the fact that he hasn’t seen any change in demeanor from his team since it won the NorCal title, DeLuca spent the past week keeping expectations simple and anxiety low.
“(I remind them that) we’re not trying to win a state championship or make history,” the coach said. “We’re just trying to win a basketball game against a really great team.”