March 22, 2016

Berkeley is the feel good story

Kevin McCarthy

Berkeley Yellowjackets logo

There isn't a better basketball story right now in Northern California than that of Berkeley High hoops as the Yellowjackets face Crespi on Thursday for the state title after defeating Menlo-Atherton 61-51 in the Northern California Division I championship matchup last Saturday. Was there anyone who forecast Coach Mark DeLuca's team to be in this position?

In the postseason, Berkeley defeated San Leandro and Dougherty Valley before falling 65-61 to Monte Vista. The Yellowjackets got back into the win column with victories over Oak Grove and Jesuit and then took revenge on Monte Vista via a 64-52 road success before downing Menlo-Atherton.

Sporting a current 24-8 record, it hasn't been anywhere near a season of beginning to end domination. More one of ups-and-downs with a critical make-or-break moment.

“We imploded after our first loss [81-74 in late January] at San Leandro,” DeLuca recalled. “Our players were being selfish, only worrying about getting shots, starting and scoring points. I was also doing a horrible job of coaching. I should have benched guys long before that game.”

He added, “We were still an average team just before the playoffs.”

A metamorphosis was needed if Berkeley was to make any sort of post-season noise.

“Once NCS came around, I had a long talk with the team I told them during NCS you will not earn a scholarship, during NCS you will not win the California scoring title and during NCS anyone taking ‘me’ shots and not ‘team’ shots will sit. Our only focus during NCS is to survive another day and get to NorCals and men it all starts with defense.”

Call it a pep talk if you will but it was more putting his guys on notice.

“From that moment on, we have spent three fourths of every practice on ball pressure, help defense, and rebounding.”

Was there an immediate uptick?

DeLuca said, “When I saw us defend versus Daugherty Valley, I knew we had action. From that moment on, we have simply gotten better and better each practice and game. We defended like mad up at Jesuit and out at Monte Vista during NorCals. I have always believed that playing defense in basketball is the ultimate gift a player can give to his teammates. When there is ball pressure followed by a help side charge there isn't anything more beautiful in basketball.”

If the Yellowjackets needed any more incentive against Monte Vista, DeLuca provided it.

"As we were driving up to the Monte Vista game, I told the players I would jump in the pond near the school if we win. Guess who went swimming?”

So at the beginning of the season, did DeLuca see Berkeley as a championship team?

“Our goal is always to reach the NorCals. I thought we could reach it but it depended on how well we defended in the post.”

What about his emphasis on defense in an era of highlight videos? “I'm an old school coach in a modern era.”

About the Crespi game on Thursday, DeLuca said, “we're just trying to win a basketball game against a very good team. The focus isn't on making history or winning a state championship.”