Denair boys defend Southern League basketball title

R.J. Henderson calls them “the core four.” He’s referring to Mario Plascencia, Cooper Feldman, Jack Henderson and Connor Leonard, who have played basketball together since junior high and just helped Denair to its first back-to-back Southern League titles in 30 years.

The Coyotes lost just once in their COVID-shortened season, posting a 9-1 league record and an 11-1 mark overall. Had there been a Division V playoff tournament this year, Denair undoubtedly would have been one of the higher seeds.

Henderson knew his four juniors would be the key to this year’s team, but even he was pleasantly surprised at how well the Coyotes played.

“What a special group,” he said. “I underestimated them. I thought we would take a little bit of a step back given that we only had one senior in our rotation, in our top eight. I thought we probably were a year away. We were led by that core group. They’re gamers. Their ability to compete kind of got us over the top.”

The core four are, in many ways, interchangeable. They started every game, with the fifth starter rotating among a few other players. All are able to handle the ball, pass, screen and shoot. And all are athletic enough to allow Denair to play a clinging man-to-man defense this year that locked down most opponents.

Denair averaged more than 65 points a game while holding the opposition to 48.

“I thought our defense was by far the best thing we had going this year,” Henderson said. “We played 90% man-to-man this year. We had three or four very good athletes and the others are good position defenders. They’ve gotten strong. They’ve spent time in the weight room.”

Denair’s only loss came in early June on the road against Mariposa. The Coyotes fell 67-63 after having beaten the Grizzlies by 12 points at home, 61-49, a month earlier. Mariposa finished 8-2 in league play, also dropping a game to Hughson.

A year after winning its first SL championship since 2006, Henderson and the core four can now celebrate the school’s first back-to-back titles since 1990-91. And with the four stars – who only play basketball – set to return next year for their senior seasons, Henderson already has set some lofty goals.

“Our preseason schedule is going to be ramped up very hard,” he promised. “We’re shooting not only to three-peat, but to get a very high seed in the Division V playoffs. We know how important that is from a couple of years ago. We want to get that first-round bye.”

To do that, Henderson has mapped out an aggressive off-season AAU schedule intended to test his players against larger and in some cases more talented schools. Denair just returned from a weekend trip to Reno were 32 teams from six Western states competed. The Coyotes went 2-3. They will take some time off before ramping up again in late July. There will be trip to San Diego in September and a return to Reno in late October before practice begins in November.

“We’ve played a lot the last couple of years,” Henderson said. “It’s been a great experience. It’s how you get better. … The foundation was built a few years ago. We were fortunate to get a couple of guys to come from Turlock, plus our home-grown kids. This is just an amazing group of kids. It’s a very close-knit group.”

Even while looking ahead, Henderson was quick to give credit to all those who allowed even a truncated basketball season to happen this spring.

“It was terrific to get 12 games in,” he said. “We were just in Nevada for a tournament and they had no indoor sports for a whole year. Our administration and the Sac-Joaquin Section had to jump through a lot of hoops with all the COVID testing, so we’re very grateful for all that they did to allow us to play.”

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