It’s been two decades since Denair won a Sac-Joaquin Section boys basketball title, but loyal fans of the Coyotes sensed early on this season that this year’s team might be capable of something special. The Coyotes are led by four versatile seniors with nearly interchangeable skills who have been playing together since junior high school. Coach R.J. Henderson calls them the “core four.”
One of those players, Mario Plasencia, has started on the varsity since he was a freshman. The others – Cooper Feldman, Jack Henderson and Connor Leonard – have been part of the varsity since they were sophomores.
They were part of a group that has won or shared the past three Southern League titles, reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V Tournament twice and even earned a spot in the NorCal Tournament two years ago. Collectively, they have won 64 of the past 73 games.
Now, after Saturday’s convincing 62-45 victory over Bradshaw Christian in Golden One Arena in Sacramento, they can call themselves Section champions.
“It’s a euphoric feeling. I’m really happy for the kids, the other coaches, the community and the school itself,” said Denair coach R.J. Henderson, who credited players who graduated in the past few years for helping to create the foundation for this year’s squad.
“There’s a lot of kids on previous teams who helped build this,” he said. “It’s all about the kids. We’ve been blessed and fortunate. We’ve got some real basketball players who want to perfect their craft. They’re going 10 months of the year.”
Denair (26-4) now moves on to the NorCal Division V Tournament, where the Coyotes earned a No. 5 seed in the 14-team bracket. They will open Tuesday at home against No. 12 Orland (19-10). Tip-off is at 6 p.m. Orland lost Wednesday to Pierce of Arbuckle in the Northern Section semifinals.
Henderson admitted some mild disappointment that the Coyotes weren’t seeded higher.
“We did what you’re supposed to do to receive a higher seed,” he said. “We won our league and won our Section. I just think that should be rewarded. … We’re 26-4 and played a harder schedule than two years ago.”
Tuesday’s winner will face the winner of the game between No. 4 Priory (16-11) of Portola Valley and No. 12 Mariposa (22-6) on Thursday. Denair and Mariposa tied for the Southern League title this year. The Coyotes have won two of their three games, including a 60-56 victory last week in the Section semifinals.
Looming in the NorCal semifinals – if Denair should win twice — is a potential matchup on Saturday against top-seeded Cloverdale (25-2), which received a first-round bye.
The other bye in the tournament went to No. 2 seed Head-Royce (21-5). Also on that side of the bracket is No. 10 Bradshaw Christian (12-19) and No. 11 Ripon Christian (20-8), teams Denair has defeated a combined three times this season.
Henderson is not worried about later rounds. Not yet, with a tough Orland team coming in.
“Our focus is all on tomorrow,” he said Monday. “It’s too daunting to look ahead.”
Henderson described Orland as a “very physical team,” based on what he’s seen on video.
“They kind of look like football player,” he said. “They look like they hit the weight room a lot. They look like they have a real good full-court and half-court man defense. They like to get out and run.”
For Denair to beat Orland, the Coyotes will have to play as well as they did Saturday against Bradshaw Christian in the Section finals.
After close victories over Aspire and Mariposa in the first two rounds, top-seeded Denair led almost from start to finish against Bradshaw Christian, a team it had beaten by two points back in December.
Denair led 25-16 at halftime and 40-33 after three quarters. Bradshaw never got closer than five points in the fourth quarter.
“To be honest, I thought they might have another run with 3 minutes to go. They just never got on a roll,” Henderson said.
Denair stretched the lead on a basket by Plasencia (20 points, seven rounds) and another basket and free throw by Feldman (16 points, six rebounds). The Coyotes lived at the foul line, shooting 17 free throws in the fourth quarter alone with Bradshaw was forced to foul to stop the clock. For the game, Denair made 20 of its 32 free throw attempts.
Part of Denair’s strategy had to do with the size of Golden One Arena, home to the NBA’s Kings. High school players often have trouble adjusting to the depth perception in a large gym. The Coyotes – who average about 20 three-point shots a game – only attempted 12 against Bradshaw.
“We were adamant about getting to the basket. We talked about it before game,” Henderson said.
Izaiahs Plasencia added 10 points and six rebounds for Denair.