The boys have no seniors but do have eight juniors, and most have played together since they were in the sixth grade.
The girls have only five players who have touched a basketball before this season, including a senior who gives them a chance to win.
The Napa Christian boys may be 4-0 with four decisive wins, and the girls 0-3 with two lopsided losses, but you wouldn’t know which was which from their loudest fans – players from the elite Prolific Prep basketball academy who began attending their school this year.
With Knights boys players helping the towering Crew players cheer on the girls near the end of the south baseline of the home gym, referees have to warn them repeatedly to keep the noise down.
During Tuesday night’s home game against El Sobrante Christian, some of 14 new students who increased Napa Christian’s high school enrollment to 58 went even further to create a homecourt advantage.
“Prolific Prep guys were shooting at halftime of the girls game and the other team walked in and they were scared to death,” Napa Christian boys head coach Ted Fuller said. “The look on their faces was like ‘Is that their team?’ and the coach walked over and said ‘No that’s not their team.’ Our principal said the looks on their faces (showed big sighs of relief).”
After the girls game ended and the boys began to warm up, Fuller said, one of the Crew players asked him ‘You got any extra jerseys? We want to put them on and go through your warm-ups.’ I kept having to tell them I wasn’t going to do it. They’re huge kids, but they’re kids.”
Napa Christian players return the favor by attending the Crew’s home games at Napa Valley College.
The most vocal of the Prolific Prep players, 6-foot-7 junior Alimamy Koroma, began attending Napa Christian last school year.
“He would play with the guys and it was interesting just being able to play with someone of that caliber, the confidence they would get,” Fuller recalled. “We would say ‘If (your opponent) is that big, what can I do to offset his size? Do I draw him outside?’ Those kinds of things. I would imagine during lunchtime when they’re shooting outside that they might talk about stuff, too.”
The Crew practices at both Grace Church of Napa Valley and at Napa Christian, after the Knights’ teams do, and their classmates often stay to watch.
“Seeing them practice and the coaches and how they work, the different drills they go through, I think it’s definitely a benefit for my kids,” Fuller said.
Boys on a roll
The boys are led by juniors Tanner Buller, Hayden Fuller, Ryan Garcia, Fil Gasmin, Noel Hocson, Jacob Midyette, Jorge Perez and Sam Piner. Rounding out the team are sophomore Drew Gage and freshmen Connor Buller, Max Caldwell, Andrew Dice, Campbell Fuller and David Qui.
Coach Fuller said it’s the best boys team Napa Christian has had in as long as he can remember, and that it’s only a coincidence that it’s during the same year Prolific Prep players have started attending the school.
The Knights (4-0) had their closest game Tuesday in a 63-51 win over El Sobrante Christian that improved their Small School Bridge League record to 2-0.
They could really get tested from here on out. They host Redding Christian (9-0) in a nonleague game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
“They were going to be in the area for a tournament and wanted another game,” Fuller said. “I would guess it’s going to be a harder game. I’m hoping they have a press because I want the guys to face a press before we go to a tournament up at (Pacific Union College Prep) and be able to work through the press-breaking process.”
The Knights then play their first road game Tuesday at Cornerstone Christian in Antioch; the Cougars (6-2), who beat Napa Christian by 40 and 42 points last season, last by only 31 points to Division I Antioch High in a recent tournament.
“Cornerstone is a pressing team, so it’ll be interesting to see how we handle pressure,” the coach said.
Napa Christian is led by point guard Hayden Fuller, who scored all of his game-high 24 points in the last three quarters on Tuesday.
“He’s been trying to figure out when to do his thing in games; in the first quarter he let the other guys do their thing, but then he had to kinda get going to get things moving,” Coach Fuller said of his older son. “He’s always had a pretty good shot, but just now finding his place.”
The Knights are shooting and running their halfcourt offense well this year.
“We’re using the read-and-react system on offense right now, so getting the ball moving is a big thing and they’re starting to get it,” Coach Fuller said. “It’s a pass-and-cut offense. One you pass, you have to cut to the basket to fill the spot, and the next guy fills to where you left, so it’s a constant motion. If you work it for 35 seconds, you’re going to get a wide-open shot.
“I’ve been adding layers over the last couple of years and it seems to be opening things up for them. This year I’ll be adding more to it because I have size with Sam and Tanner, so we can get more inside scoring.”
The Knights have already matched the four wins they had all last season, and hope to make the playoffs.
“They’re really excited,” Coach Fuller said. “The junior class has put a little fire in the program.”
Girls led by Matheny
It was no fluke that Emma Matheny was the one taking the Knights on her shoulders while her team was trailing crosstown rival Trinity Prep by two points down the stretch on Dec. 5. The senior point guard was under-the-weather, however, and couldn’t hit multiple attempts at game-tying, fast-break layups, and Napa Christian fell 28-26.
Matheny, whose father Art assists Knights head coach Darren Smith, led the Knights with 15 points in the game.
“I also teach English here,” Smith said after the game, “and today in class one of my players in her journal writing that she shared with the class said ‘I’m so glad I’m in a group that’s led by someone like Emma, who really wants to win but also wants to help us improve and get better, and so she works with us.’ They respect her. She is much better than they are right now, but she doesn’t have the attitude that she is.”
The Knights (0-3), who fell to PUC Prep and El Sobrante Christian by much larger margins, will visit Cornerstone Christian on Tuesday before heading into a 21-day holiday break from competition.
Smith said PUC Prep head coach Matt Rembold never tries to run up the score on Napa Christian because Smith coached Rembold in high school.
“(PUC) Prep has a lot of seniors and they’re at a higher level than we are right now. They have a lot of returning players who know their system,” Smith said, while “I was turning to my bench saying ‘OK, who’s ready to play?’ and they wouldn’t even look me in the eye. But when you get down by 15-20 points, the pressure is off and we can work on things.”
It paid off three days later against Trinity Prep.
“They weren’t nervous,” Smith said. “Four or five times our defensive rotation was perfect, and I was jumping up and down and turning to the bench saying ‘See, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.’ In the second half I was trying to put five on, five off to keep us fresh and then that final five minutes I kept in the five who gave us the best chance to win. We had a shot to tie with three seconds left, and I can’t ask for more than that.”
Napa Christian’s only other returning starter, sophomore guard Catalina Harsany, had six points against Trinity Prep. Returning junior Citlalic Cano and freshman Elana Pang added two apiece.
Rounding out the team are juniors Baylee Gorham, Ariana Dice, Yulissa Sanchez and Beatrice Pang, and freshmen Bella Young, Yumina Kosaka, Kenlynn Ingham and Andrea Silva.
“If we play pressure defense and rotate like we’re supposed to, we get easy offense and we’re in the game, and come January we’ll try to work on a more intricate offense,” Smith said. “This offense is very basic – pass and cut, pass and cut. We’re concentrating now on dribbling because I have 13 girls and only five have ever played high school basketball before. But I’m excited because I’ve never had 13 girls before – we ended last season with six.
“If we play defense and stay in the game, we can sneak up on somebody and win a game or two in December or January, but we’re coaching for February, for the (season-ending league) tournament, because that’s where we want to see the wins.”