San Francisco’s First Public School To Win A State Hoops Title Did So Because It Refused To Have An Off Switch •
Story By Chace Bryson | Photos By Berry Evans III
Niamey Harris threw down the dunk and provided an exclamation point to a history-making state championship victory for the Mission High boys basketball team.
And the thought going through his head head, he admitted later amongst chuckling teammates:
He didn’t, and a horde of fans decked out in brown and gold erupted in euphoria while the final seconds of the CIF Division III state final ticked off at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 24.
“He was coming out if he missed,” Mission coach Arnold Zelaya said with a grin following the Bears’ thrilling 82-75 overtime win over Villa Park. “It’s a team rule: You can go ahead and try to dunk it, but if you miss you’re coming out.”
Despite his own internal concern, there wasn’t much chance of that. Harris could seemingly do no wrong in helping to lead Mission to its first state title — and the first state crown for the San Francisco public school system. He led the Bears in points (31), rebounds (7), steals (6) and blocks (4).
He also had four assists and the perfect pep talk for his teammates after Mission squandered a seven-point lead over the final two minutes of regulation.
“Just keep playing,” Zelaya said when asked what he told his team prior to the start of overtime.“Niamey said it on the bench, ‘Keep your heads up you guys. We haven’t lost this game. They’ve got to deal with us for four more minutes.’”
Bears guard Jayden Foston sank his third 3-pointer of the night on the team’s second possession of overtime and Mission never trailed the rest of the way.
Prior to Mission’s appearance, Washington-San Francisco was the city’s only other public school to reach a state final — in 1982. That Washington team lost to Carson-L.A. 54-53 in the Div. I championship game. Mission finished the year 35-1, their 35 wins putting them into the state record book (tied for fourth-most in a single season).
“I don’t know if the history part has sunken into them,” Zelaya said of his players during the postgame press conference. “It will, at some point, just like all the lessons we teach high school kids. Sometimes they don’t believe us when they’re learning it at the time. Nothing can take this away. This is a forever thing and these guys will realize it.”
Mission closed the year on a 24-game winning streak. The team’s lone loss was an odd lopsided flop to Monte Vista-Danville in the championship game of the Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Invitational on Dec. 29, 2016, at St. Ignatius-S.F. The night before, the Bears posted a 53-51 win over James Logan-Union City — a team which would play in the Division I state final just two hours after Mission’s game wrapped up.
Despite their strong résumé and long win streak, the Bears entered the regional playoffs as the No. 4 seed. They promptly dispatched No. 13 San Marin-Novato and No. 12 Foothill-Palo Cedro by 23 and 25 points, respectively. That led to a packed Kezar Pavilion for a regional semifinal showdown with top-seed St. Ignatius-S.F.. The Bears won that showdown 64-54 and then had to travel to Vanden-Fairfield and defeat the No. 3 Vikings 72-68.
“We went into the playoffs with 30 wins and got a four seed,” Zelaya said. “But it didn’t bother them. They weren’t fazed. It was just, next up, next up, next up.”
Harris said he was counting on being considered an underdog by Villa Park (27-7).
“I knew we’d be underestimated by the team because they were taller and bigger,” Harris added later in the press conference. “But everybody came out to fight. Everybody had their game face on.”
Foston knew his teammates weren’t going to back down from anyone.
“We’re a tough team,” he said. “We play together. We play strong. We never let the opponent get to us.”
After the loss, Villa Park coach Kevin Reynolds had nothing but praise for the state champs.
“They certainly showed why it is that they’ve only lost one game this year, and why it’s justified that they’re a state champ,” Reynolds said. “They played really well. I know that’s a history-making experience for them, and we have nothing but respect for them.”
Mission, which was the talk of the City for much of the playoffs — “My phone, I can’t keep a charge on it for longer than an hour because it keeps buzzing,” Zelaya said after the win — was able to spend its first week as champions basking in the limelight. That included being hosted by the Golden State Warriors at their home game on April 2.
The events in the wake of the title provided the team just a few more moments together.
A few more moments to grasp the magnitude of what the players achieved together.
“These guys are a special group,” Zelaya summed up. “They’re a scrappy group. I’ve been tough on them, but it’s love and compassion and that’s how we played.”