How do you follow-up the best season in school history?
That’s the question Greg Rahn and the Pacific Union College men’s basketball team have to answer as they embark on another journey through the California Pacific Conference and, possibly, the NAIA Division II landscape.
The Pioneers first put the conference on notice by dethroning the five-time CalPac champions Cal State Maritime in last year’s playoffs thanks to a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Fairfield native and Napa Valley College transfer Rae Hubbard.
With the championship win they earned an automatic qualifier for the NAIA Div. II Championship tournament and then proceeded to put the country on notice. As the No. 8 seed in the Liston Bracket, the Pioneers opened a 26-point lead over top-seeded Cornerstone (Michigan), a perennial power that many picked to win it all.
The Golden Eagles rallied, though, thanks in part to some lopsided officiating that saw 43 free-throw attempts for Cornerstone, while PUC had seven.
The way that game played out lingered with returners like Harlem, New York native Jayson Marquez, who watched Cornerstone go on to reach the championship game only to fall to another press-heavy, defensive-minded program, Union College.
“I think we played a great first half,” the senior recalled at practice last week. “We all was playing for each other; we played a great first half. We just didn’t know how to face that adversity that we had toward the second half when the team started coming back and some of the calls wasn’t going our way. We didn’t know what to do in that situation because we’ve never been in that situation.
“It was kind of hard for us, and to lose that game, everything went downhill after. Personally, for me after losing that game, we all felt like we personally could have done something better. So we all kind of blamed ourselves in a way when it was a team thing.”
However, the end of the campaign didn’t take anything away from the milestones the program achieved over the course of it, winning the most games ever (18), coupled with multiple statistical marks in the top 10 in the country.
Rahn, a Napa native and Vintage High graduate now in his fourth season as PUC’s head coach, is tasked with leading the team into uncharted territory. The outside world now sees the Pioneers as a legitimate threat, evidenced by the CalPac coaches’ poll that picked them to finish second behind Benedictine-Mesa.
So when some of the team got back together in the offseason and he noticed the players reveling in the glory of the championship banner, he introduced a dose of reality.
“Everybody’s 0-0,” Rahn told them. “As great as it was last year, that was last year and you’ve got to compartmentalize that and leave that where it is. That’s history now. It is what it is and it’s done.”
As for where they are now, 1-2 overall (1-5 if the exhibition games against Fresno State, Cal State-Stanislaus and Humboldt State get included), the honeymoon is well in the rear-view mirror as Pacific Union works through a slow start.
“We were the underdog forever,” said Rahn. “Before I became coach of this program – even last year – we got picked like second- or third-to-last to finish in league, so we had that chip on our shoulder. We knew we were better than what people perceived us to be.
“Now it’s kind of one of those things, we almost go too much respect from the league this year when they did the polling ... I’m telling our guys, ‘There’s two ways to look at that.’ We can look at it like, ‘Oh, we’re champions; we should be first.’ But at the end of the day, I’m telling ‘em, ‘As many new pieces as we have and where we’re at right now – second? That’s almost like they’re being nice.’”
This year’s roster is as young as Rahn has had, with four freshmen as opposed to the upperclassmen-heavy ranks he’s gone for in the past. That’s meant the six seniors, Marquez, Hubbard, Brandon Franklin, Devon Pinnock, Noel Briones and transfer Chris Camper, have had to strike a balance between not doing too much to overcompensate for the learning curve while making sure everyone gets a chance to grow into the PUC style.
“It’s a dynamic this year which is new to all of us,” Rahn said. “The seniors this year – I don’t want to say it’s pressure – but there’s a standard that they’re trying to have everybody meet like, ‘Look, it was very difficult but we achieved a championship last year.’ And they want nothing less than that.”
At times, that’s made life more challenging for the youngsters. Freshman Kyle Zelenski is a Chico native and played for a Pleasant Valley team that lost the Northern Section Division 3 championship in overtime and advanced to the state tournament.
Even with that sort of basketball pedigree, in a home where his father Jeff Zelenski played college basketball, too, transitioning to the next level was tough. And playing up to the standard his senior teammates set was part of that.
“They want you to be perfect because if you’re perfect, you win,” Kyle Zelenski said.
He conceded he was a role player at Pleasant Valley, but the 3-point marksman plays that role well. In PUC’s lone win against Westcliff, he was 6 of 8 from distance and joked that, for a brief moment, he was the top shooter in the country.
The demands to maintain that kind of play are part of the process Zelenski is adjusting to. He described the Pleasant Valley style as “robotic,” whereas PUC is far different. The Pioneers are defined by an aggressive full-court press. They force turnovers and hurried offensive play, and are at their best when their cashing their turnovers in for transition baskets. They spread out the floor with their 3-point shooters, and try to outwork teams near the basket for rebounds and second-chance opportunities.
“(Practice) ends when we get what we need to get done, done,” Zelenski said. “I guess that’s the biggest transition, too. And the biggest thing I struggled with was confidence … But now I’m like, ‘I’m here for a reason.’”
Much of the slow start is also due to the limited roster. Pacific Union lacks size, with juniors Jeremiah Blandin and Wayne Englestad representing their two biggest bodies at 6-foot-6. The team has also been without Pinnock at point guard, who suffered a knee injury in the NAIA tournament and has been rehabbing relentlessly to get back. He was medically cleared to play just last week, but before that Marquez, Hubbard and Franklin were doing what they could to quarterback the offense.
“It’s new, and we’ve got to kind of figure it out as far as playing together,” said Marquez, last year’s lone All-CalPac First Teamer. “I honestly feel we could be a better team than last year, but it’s just about everybody’s attitude toward defense and playing together. Once that meshes, then we’re going to have a great team.”
The Pioneers have also played fewer games than their CalPac peers, who have as many as eight non-exhibition contests under their belt.
Starting with Saturday’s exhibition contest at San Francisco State, they’ll play three games over seven days before a daunting stretch in mid-December of four over five days.
So the opportunities to develop chemistry with a full roster together are coming, and Rahn is optimistic they’ll be able to get things on track soon.
The conference has only been getting tougher with each passing year, so if PUC wants to turn one championship into two and make last year’s success the start of an era, the coach wants to see some sustained play in the coming weeks.
“This is our time to learn and we’ve shown glimpses of what’s good,” Rahn said. “We’ve got to make sure we stay consistent and disciplined on those things and we’ll keep riding it out successfully. Once we get all of our bodies back, we’ll be a pretty strong threat.”