Magical season ends for Denair boys after NorCal playoff loss

In basketball, size matters. Taller players – especially athletic ones – often have a natural advantage over their shorter opponents. That immutable fact underscores what happened Thursday night when a relatively small Denair team squared off against a much bigger Priory squad in the second round of the NorCal Division V Tournament.

Needing to shoot efficiently from distance on offense and fight hard to avoid giving up second-chance points on defense, Denair did neither. Instead, the Coyotes were dominated 70-49 by Panthers in Portola Valley.

Priory leaned on 6-foot-5 senior Oliver Conn (15 points, six rebounds) and 6-9 sophomore Steve (eight points, 12 rebounds, four blocked shots) to dominate inside against Denair, whose tallest player is 6-3. The Panthers also got a strong game from guard Tayo Sobomehin, who led all scorers with 21 points, including four three-pointers.

Priory (18-11) led 20-10 after one quarter, 37-21 at halftime and 53-30 after three quarters. Denair (27-5) never got closer than 14 points in the second half.

“We just didn’t make shots,” said Denair coach R.J. Henderson, whose players were a frigid 4-for-24 from the three-point line. “We just didn’t have it and they arguably had the three best players on the court. We ran up against a better team.”

The loss, though disappointing, does nothing to diminish the amazing success of not only this year’s Denair team, but the program built by Henderson that has achieved in ways matched by few others in school history.

The Coyotes have won or shared the past three Southern League championship, something no other Denair team has done. During that span, they are 32-2 in league play and 64-10 overall. This year’s team won the school’s first Sac-Joaquin Section title since 2002 and made it to the second round of the NorCal Tournament for only the third time ever.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the locker room after the game,” said Henderson, who will step down as coach after 10 seasons. “The finality of it hits and it’s over. You get a feeling of what it’s like in March Madness when a team is eliminated.”

Henderson admitted to having a special bond with the team’s four seniors – Mario Plasencia, Connor Leonard, Cooper Feldman and Jack Henderson (the coach’s nephew).

“That group leaves a really, really valuable legacy for Denair basketball,” said Henderson. “They have a lot to be proud of. Those kids are like my second family, I’ve been around them so long. It was special to coach that group.”

The “core four,” as Henderson often refers to them, were at the heart of Denair’s recent success. They committed to playing basketball not only during the school season, but also in travel ball in the summer and fall that saw Denair going up against bigger schools in places like Roseville and Reno.

Henderson also had kind words for school officials and parents, without whose support the Coyotes couldn’t have accomplished so much.

“It took a lot of support from administrators and parents to trust in this program because it wasn’t on the map when a lot of these kids decided to play for me in the seventh grade,” he said. “We kept the home-grown kids and added some kids from other schools. The stars aligned. You’ve got to play nine or 10 months of the year to make this happen at a small school like Denair.”

Henderson, who teaches physical education at Denair Middle School and independent study at Denair Charter Academy, is only 47 years old. He would like to coach again, if he can find the right situation. In the meantime, he is proud of his time at Denair High. 

“Most of what I take out of last 10 years is the relationships,” he said. “With the kids, watching them grow and hopefully setting an example of the life skills you build through the program. And secondly, the relationship with the parents. I’m very grateful for their support.”

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