SportStars Magazine

Raising The Bar

  Story by MIKE WOOD | Photos by BERRY EVANS III

  An already towering bar of success has been raised to loftier heights for Salesian College Preparatory-Richmond’s basketball team. And that’s something the Pride’s players and coaches realize and fully embrace.

  It’s a natural progression for a team that shook off a “young” tag last season. Youth proved no barrier in a stellar 28-5 campaign that ended with a narrow overtime loss to No. 1 seed De La Salle in the first round of the CIF Open Division playoffs.

  Long a North Coast Section power — Salesian has six section titles in the past 11 years — the Pride is now entrenched as a Northern California force with bona fide aspirations to play for a state title.

  “We want nothing less than a state championship,” point guard James Akinjo said. “We of course want to win our league, win NCS, and then a state championship.”

  The Pride has captured state Division IV titles in 2009 (led by Jabari Brown and Desmond Simmons) and 2012 (fueled by future Cal star Jabari Bird). And it begins this season having been moved up by the NCS one spot to Division III.

  The drive to play for such a program often begins before high school.

  Ke’mare Wright said he knew he wanted to play at Salesian, when he watched his cousin, Davion Mize, playing in the 2012 state championship game. Wright is respectful of the opportunity he h as.

  “I’m lucky to be able to play here,” Wright said. “They  didn’t have to let me come here and let me play. So that makes me want to do my best.”

  Last season, with just two seniors and one junior, the Pride brought a 21-game win streak into its NorCal Open Division matchup with De La Salle. The Spartans emerged with a 51-45 overtime win, and went on to play for the state title. But in pushing De La Salle to the brink, the Pride cemented its high status among elite programs.

  “That team played extremely hard every game,” said Bill Mellis, now starting his 19th year as Salesian’s head coach. “It didn’t matter if we were playing a good team or one that’s not so good. The players never really got fazed by who we were playing and didn’t let up against the teams that weren’t so good.”

  Continuity is king at Salesian. Most of those players are back.  As is Mellis, who also is the chair of the school’s physical education department.  

  The longtime teacher is appreciative of those he was able to learn from. It’s an impressive list, which starts with one of California’s most heralded coaching families. Mellis’ high school playing days came at Santa Cruz High for Pete Newell Jr., who established himself as a prep coaching icon, following in the coaching ranks of his father, the legendary Cal and USF coach.

  “I would say Pete Newell Jr. is one of the best high school coaches you could imagine,” said Mellis. “One thing I have taken is how important details are. Both he and his father have great minds. Coach Newell could blow a whistle anytime and point out a detail. He was not afraid to stop the flow of practice.”

  The Newell-Mellis connection goes back one more generation. Spiro Mellis, Bill’s father, was Pete Newell Sr.’s team manager in the first season of Newell’s fabled run at Cal.

  “Awesome” is how Mellis sums up his opportunity to learn from the Newells.

  Mellis went on to Cal, where he met Lou Campanelli, serving as student manager for the coach, from 1988-93, finishing with Jason Kidd’s first season at Cal.

  “Lou was a lot of X’s and O’s, with the press breaks, a style I took from him,” Mellis said. “He and I are very close. He comes to a couple of games a year, and we go out to breakfast or lunch a couple times. I still reach out to him often.”

  The third coach whom Mellis cited as having a major impact on him is Bill Treseler, now the Albany High coach and an academic advisor at Salesian.

  Mellis’ entry to Salesian came when Treseler was the school’s head coach. Mellis served as an assistant for five years under Treseler, and when Treseler left (and eventually became San Francisco State’s head coach), Mellis began his run as Salesian head coach.

  “It’s really great to have him as a resource,” Mellis said. “He’s someone I can walk down the hall and talk to.”

  Continuity runs deep. Eddie Foster has been an assistant coach with Mellis for all 19 years. And there’s former player David Jobe, an assistant dating back to the 2008-09 season.

  Salesian’s formidable list of key components starts with point guard James Akinjo. The junior already is being heavily recruited by Texas A&M, Nevada, and there’s definite Pac-12 interest, Mellis said. It starts with dedication to the game.

  “I can not drag him out of the gym,” Mellis said. “He has that ultimate work ethic. And his ball-handling is really good right now.”

  Derrick Langford, a junior guard, is strong going to the bucket, with a good defensive ethic, Mellis said.

  Yet another impressive junior is Jamario Bibb, who has started since his freshman year. He’s an inside-outside player now focusing on perimeter play. “He could knock down a 3, and he’s sure to be our lead rebounder,” the coach said.

  Mellis said versatile Joshua Jefferson, on varsity since his freshman season, is poised for a breakout season. “I think it is really his time,” Mellis said.

  Wright, one of four football players on the basketball team, is a physical scorer. “He provides a nice counterattack with James.”

  Then there are the McClanahan twins, who impressed as freshmen a season ago.

  Jaden McClanahan, a point guard, is a solid distributor and passer and a really tough defender, the coach said. Jovan McClanahan, the school’s star running back on the gridiron, is a wing.

  The tallest player is 6-foot-9 Manny Adeoye from Nigeria, part of the school’s international program. There’s junior Brandon Betson, who can shoot 3s.

  There are four freshmen: Tyler Brinkman, Shane Bell, Austin Hernandez and Alondre Ray-Love.
 
  “It really comes down to how much they’ll jell and how much they will commit to playing hard on the defensive end,” Mellis said. We don’t have a ton of size. This is a team that is going to have to find to creative ways to get rebounds.”

  There’s no shortage of vocal leaders, Mellis said, whether it’s Akinjo, Bibb, Wright or the McClanahans.

  “That’s very helpful and takes a lot of stress off me,” Akinjo said. “That allows me to play freely.”

  This season’s schedule again is chock full of tough opponents.

  At the Jan. 16 MLK Classic at Saint Mary’s, Salesian will meet its brother school, St. John Bosco-Bellflower. Prior to that, the Pride will play in three challenging tournaments.

  It starts with the Gridley Tournament Dec. 8-10. The Pride return to the Modesto Christian Tournaments, Dec. 27-30, opening with Berkeley. Perhaps biggest is when the Pride travel to Las Vegas to be part of the Tarkanian Classic Dec. 15-20. The 16-team lineup includes Bishop Gorman, Mater Dei, defending state Open champ Chino Hills, and Crossroads-Santa Monica, which features Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son.

  And the Pride’s league is the furthest thing from an afterthought. The Tri-County Athletic League Rock Division also boasts postseason perennials El Cerrito, St. Joseph Notre Dame and St. Patrick-St. Vincent.

  So it’s key that Salesian’s players stay grounded. Mellis cites their ability to keep the focus on the game at hand, not on the number of Ws they have racked up.

  “Last year when we had that big long streak, and people were asking ‘Do you feel pressure?’ — Our kids didn’t really know how long the streak was,” Mellis said.

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