Behind A Strength-In-Numbers Approach, Salesian Girls Basketball Navigated A Frustrating And Demanding Season To Win The Program’s First State Title •
PICTURED ABOVE: Salesian senior Kaylie Edge. (David Gershon photos)
The morning after winning his first state championship in four tries, Salesian High girls basketball coach Steve Pezzola was on a flight to Vicksburg, Mississippi.
He and his wife were visiting their daughter Genevieve, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It was Genevieve who helped Pezzola truly feel the impact of winning the CIF Division I championship victory over Windward-L.A the day before.
“When I got there, seeing her excitement over what we’d done, I was like ’Wow, we really indeed did it,’” Pezzola said by phone nine days following his team’s big win.
This title, which was earned through a 62-51 victory on March 11 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, was always going to take awhile to sink in for the coach of the Pride. Primarily because of the three previous empty trips — all in consecutive years from 2012 to 2014 — and the fact that nothing about the 2021-22 was normal for the team that calls Richmond home.
Between positive COVID tests, other illnesses and a number of canceled games, there was nearly a month of the season in which Salesian was forced to go without its regular season routine.
“It still boggles my mind,” Pezzola said. “There were something like 20-25 days of not doing what we normally do.”
The team went 22 days between games from Dec. 30 to Jan. 21. And not everybody returned at full health until the CIF Northern Regional playoffs. That’s when the Pride was handed the top seed in Division I and won its first three games by an average of 30 points. Then in the NorCal final against St. Ignatius, the team rallied from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win 52-48.
“We just started to play like we expected to play all season,” Pezzola said. “Play together, and any given play someone else stepped up. They each had one goal in mind, that was to win the basketball game. … They were all team focused. That’s what got us to where we did.”
But where did this journey start? It started with Pezzola keeping 14 players on the roster for the first time in his career.
The decision wasn’t easy for the long tenured coach.
“I struggled with it initially, because as a coach, I want every one of my players to understand that any given day they can be called upon to play a significant role in the game,” he said. “The larger the roster, the harder it is to make them believe that.”
But not only did the players believe it, they adopted a motto of “Strength In Numbers.”
Though the team lost junior guard D’yani Bernstine to a knee injury early in the season, the rest of the roster bonded together through adversity and what Pezzola likes to call “playing for the Sisterhood.”
“We often had 12 or 13 girls in games,” the coach said. “Maybe my strongest memories of this group will be how the girls were able to stay focused knowing their number would be called. Then when it was, they stepped up and did the best for the team.
“It was the starters understanding that a few of their minutes would be taken by people coming in to fill a role, and then being super loud in support of them. Realizing they’d be better served by getting a rest, and just screaming their guts out for those on the floor.”
It was actually the reactions and support from the bench that moved Pezzola the most in the few parts of the state final that he was able to rewatch.
“They were going crazy,” he said with a chuckle.
Windward scored the first basket of the game and held a pair of very early leads. After Salesian tied the game at 6-6 on a driving layup by junior Nevaeh Asiasi, the Pride would trail only once the rest of the way (26-25 early in the second half). It was 25-22 at the half despite the fact that Salesian was shooting under 35 percent from the field and were 0-for-8 from behind the 3-point line.
Everything came together in the third period, though, as Salesian shot 9 of 13 from the field and nailed two 3s. Pride standout senior post Silivia Fonongaloa, who only fully returned to her best health prior to the state playoffs, asserted her will as Salesian outscored Windward 23-12 in the quarter.
“I feel like I got myself together,” Fonongaloa said of her standout CIF postseason after fighting illness late in the regular season and section playoffs. “Coming into the (state) playoffs, I knew I had to work and do what I do best. I feel like I came back for the playoffs.”
She finished with a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds in the state final, doing so in just 21 minutes of action.
“Via is such an inspiration to all of our girls with what she does,” Pezzola said. “It was such a rough season for her. She was healthy and ready when we were stuck in our hiatus. Then as soon as we were ready to come out of it, she got sick. But when she has her conditioning and energy together — like she did in the NorCal tournament — she’s a force.”
Fonongaloa led the Pride in both points and rebounds while Asiasi and Makiah Asidanya both scored 11. Kaylie Edge added seven points and seven rebounds. However, the state final’s official stat sheet truly showed the team’s strength-in-numbers approach. Twelve girls played. Eight scored. Nine pulled down at least one rebound.
And in a joyful press conference after the game, all 13 reveled in talking about teaching Coach Pezzola “The Gritty” dance — which he delivered, as promised, during the on-court celebration.
Word of the coach’s rhythm has already spread.
“I was introduced to someone in San Francisco just recently, and before (my friend) could even get my name out, the guy asked, ‘Are you going to do The Gritty for me?,’” Pezzola said incredulously.
But what spread most quickly in the aftermath of the Pride’s win was the excitement and shout-outs from former Salesian players. Their program and coach were finally hanging a banner next to the two brought home by the boys program in 2009 and 2012.
After the game, the press conference, a photo session with the trophy, and being doused in water by his players, Pezzola stepped out into a hallway and finally turned his phone back on.
It began a seemingly endless string of vibrations.
“It was remarkable,” he said. “It was a group of texts from former players congratulating me and the team. Many said how thankful they were to be part of a program that got to win the state championship. So many kind words and kind thoughts toward me and sharing how much the school had meant to them. That was special.”
Maybe the program was about Strength in Numbers all along. Yet this was the team to do it, and it took everybody to pull it off.
“It feels great to win,” Fonongaloa said during the postgame press conference. “It was a team effort.”