Once more, with feeling.
For the third consecutive game in the state high school basketball tournament, Santa Clara will square off with a slightly smaller but decidedly quicker team.
The Saints (28-4), the Southern California champions, will meet Hayward (33-2), Northern California and North Coast Section champion, at 8 tonight at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for the state Division IV championship.
Santa Clara, winner of two consecutive state titles, stands poised to make history. No boys’ team has won three California state titles in a row.
“We’ll be ready,” Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich said. “We’ve played 32 games, and against the type of competition we’ve played . . . we (had) better be ready.”
Santa Clara’s last two wins, over St. Monica and San Diego Lincoln Prep, came against teams that tried to run the patient Saints out of the gym. Against St. Monica, Santa Clara nearly stumbled, falling behind by 11 in the third quarter before rallying to win.
But against Lincoln Prep, Santa Clara’s extended match-up zone took away Lincoln’s outside shooting and Santa Clara’s strong rebounding took away the Hornets’ running game.
In Hayward, the Saints face an accomplished team that has beaten some highly regarded Northern California schools.
Hayward’s tallest player is 6-foot-4 but of their top three scorers, the tallest, junior Shaun Pennington (16 points a game) is 6-2 and the two others, senior Laron Floyd (19 ppg) and junior Gerald Walker (19 ppg), are 6-foot. Santa Clara counters with three 6-4 starters in Chris Cole, Stevie Amar and Isaiah Mustafa.
Like St. Monica and Lincoln Prep, Hayward is athletic and likes to run. Coach Charley Kendall says that his team is also disciplined.
“We run when we can, but if we have to be disciplined we can,” Kendall said. “You would hope so with four starters back.”
Last season’s Hayward team glided into the playoffs with a 28-2 record, but Hayward was stunned by little-known Mill Valley Tamalpais in the second round.
Kendall says that the loss to the Indians proved beneficial in the long run.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “The four starters coming back weren’t happy. I wasn’t happy. We were very undisciplined and very young and it turned us around. We made a commitment to hard work and discipline.”
That commitment has paid off this season. Hayward won two games against powerful Mt. Eden, beat Northern California Division III champion Fremont Washington twice and prestigious Oakland Fremont once. In the state playoffs, Hayward’s margin of victory was never less than 17 points and the Farmers disposed of Travis Air Force Base Vanden, 72-45, in the Northern California final. Vanden was 30-1 entering the game.
“We didn’t play chicken-feed competition,” Kendall said. “We scheduled tough and it paid off.”
Santa Clara lost only to four highly rated teams this season. The Saints have been winning games by closer margins than a season ago when they swept to the state title behind All-American Shon Tarver, but that may be a plus if tonight’s game is a thriller.
Santa Clara has four juniors in the starting five, but the Saints have shown no tendency to rush in the playoffs. In fact, Santa Clara’s patience might have been the difference against St. Monica.
And while this is Hayward’s first appearance in the state final, most of Santa Clara’s players made the trip last year to Oakland.
“I think the kids know what’s at stake,” Cvijanovich said. “Everything is just fine.”