Perhaps the best indication of the positive momentum building for the St. Helena High boys basketball program is the outside support that’s beginning to flow in.

Herdell Printing recently provided custom signage to display on storefront windows around town to hopefully draw in wandering eyes to the Saints’ schedule. The girls teams were also part of that.

Even better than signs, though, are the recent St. Helena alums like Richard Hoppe, Alec Fetzer and Lucas Wendt, the team’s new varsity assistant coach, that have begun devoting time to bolster what the current players are learning in practice.

Head coach Joe Densberger said Hoppe and Wendt are swarming the guards to help them react better when they face a team that plays a full court press. Fetzer, a two-time Academic All-American for California Pacific Conference powerhouse Cal Maritime, is teaching the big men how to respond to contact and play a more physical game.

St. Helena High Athletic Hall of Famer Jim Gamble is contributing to the collective brain trust, too, helping Densberger scheme and sharpen the team’s tactics before game days.

It’s truly a village-raising-a-child (or children) sort of dynamic with this year’s Saints basketball team, and it’s hard to imagine the elevated interest in the program isn’t a result of last season’s rejuvenation.

St. Helena was 14-14 overall and finished fourth in North Central League I play with a 6-8 mark. The Saints won eight more games than the previous year and their most since 2012, making the North Coast Section playoffs for the first time since that season five years ago.

They snapped Kelseyville’s 13-game winning streak in the first round of the NCL I playoffs with 57-50 thriller at Mendocino College. Two days later, they played one of their tightest games in recent memory against perennial contender Cloverdale before eventually falling in the playoff championship, 60-50.

Despite running into the Bentley School of Lafayette buzz saw, getting trounced 77-31 to the eventual runner-up of the Division 5 playoffs, St. Helena got a taste of legitimacy in basketball that’s been missing for some time.

And even though they have to replace Dylan Martin, the 2017 All-Napa County Boys Basketball Player of the Year, the returners on the roster, coupled with the JV graduates, have potential to be a formidable force.

“I think they’re pushing themselves a little bit harder than they did last year, and they want to get back to that (position),” Densberger said. “I think that Bentley game left a little bit of a bitter taste in their mouth, which it should’ve. But they know that we have the potential to make a run in league and have the potential to play with anyone in our league. We just have to develop a few things to get to that, and they’re getting that now.”

Everything starts and ends with senior center Ethan Battistini, last year’s All-County Defensive Player of the Year and an All-League honorable mention. Densberger said he’s the “focal point” of this season’s team and will facilitate much of the action on offense, using his 6-foot-8 frame to exploit smaller defenders or draw double teams to free up his teammates for high-percentage looks.

He can also spread the floor as one of the team’s best 3-point shooters.

Battistini made the All-Tournament Team at last week’s Sutter Home Classic in St. Helena, averaging 15.7 points per game over the three-day event. His highest output (18 points) came against Piner of Santa Rosa last Friday in a 58-50 loss to the eventual Sutter Home champs.

“When you’ve got Ethan … you’ve got to find a way to run it through him,” Densberger said.

The rest of the senior class is highlighted by All-County Newcomer of the Year finalists Olie Russum and Christian Cia, the former the team’s do-it-all sixth man and, the latter, a tried and true defensive stalwart that can make tough shots. Wing Ryan Rockwood and guard Stephen Collins are also part of the veteran core.

But it’s the juniors and sophomores on this year’s varsity team that may be what helps push this team into an era of sustained success.

Desnberger expects juniors Christian Iano and Nick Jeworowski and sophomores Jonathan Gamble and Collin Darrall to play significant roles as they continue to get acclimated to the varsity level.

“As I like to say to the boys, ‘We’re playing big boy basketball now,’” Densberger said. “There’s going to be some contact and you’ve got to be willing to take it and handle it and finish with that. Just because someone’s bumping you, you can’t decide to take a step back.”

That’s where the impact of Fetzer will be felt. He’s teaching guys like the lengthy Jeworowski, who is starting at power forward just like Fetzer did for Cal Maritime, to play a physical game and turn contact into an advantage, not a deterrent.

Darrall, who flashed his handles with what Densberger described as a “phenomenal” series of crossovers against Roseland, has the ability catch fire quickly and get it done both off-the-dribble or shooting from distance.

“We just have to get him to slow the game down in his mind a little bit because he wants to go so fast,” the coach said, “and he’s so quick that you have to slow it down in his mind and it’ll come easier.”

Gamble, a versatile guard with size and son of proxy assistant coach Jim Gamble, a 2015 Hall of Fame inductee, saw a sizable share of minutes last season. Densberger believes he “is going to do just fine.”

Rounding out the roster are Kostas Kelperis, Zac Flood, Angel Cuamatzi-Rodriguez and Doug Collins.

St. Helena will rely on its defense every night, and surrendering 45.7 ppg in last week’s tournament was an encouraging start for the Saints coach.

“This early in the season, to play that good of defense against quality teams was nice to see,” Densberger said.

Now the Saints have turned their attention to the always-tough John McMillan Holiday Invitational Basketball Tournament, which started Thursday in Cloverdale. They opened against Pinewood of Los Altos Hills, which won the tournament in 2016.

From here, it’s about honing in on the team’s identity and using these next seven games before NCL I play begins in Lower Lake, Jan. 3, to get ready for the most important stretch of the season.

“It’s a work in progress to get ready for league,” said Densberger.


Sports Reporter

Yousef has been a sports reporter at the Napa Valley Register since February 2015, and hosts the Napa Register Radio podcast. He is a proud UGA graduate and has written for the Sacramento Bee, The Advocate and the Athens Banner-Herald, among others.