The Calistoga boys and girls basketball teams ended the regular season on a high note on Senior Night on Saturday, sweeping the visiting Willits Wolverines in both games.
The Calistoga girls completed a miraculous comeback in the first game, outscoring the Wolverines 29-9 over the final eight minutes to turn a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit into a thrilling 49-47 win, while the boys grinded out a hard-fought 36-30 win in the second game that gave the Wildcats their 11th win of the season, the most wins for the boys team since the 2012-13 season.
All in all, it was a day full of celebrations at Calistoga High and not just because of the game results.
The boys honored their three seniors – Jasiel Flores, Cesar Ayala and Gio Avina – just before their game. Each senior wrote a personal note, which were read to the crowd and highlighted how appreciative they were of all the support they received from coaches and family this season.
The girls team doesn’t have any seniors this year, so it instead recognized the section championship volleyball team, which shares a handful of players with the basketball team.
Once the well-wishes and hugs subsided, the games resumed and they did not disappoint.
In the opener, the girls trailed 41-20 a minute into the fourth quarter, but behind Vanesa Quiepo’s 18 points in the quarter, rallied for one of their most impressive wins of the season. Quiepo finished with a game-high 32 points and hit all seven of her free throws in the fourth quarter, but took a backseat to Litzy Infante down the stretch. Infante hit three consecutive jump shots – the final one a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left that gave the Wildcats the lead for the final time – that flipped a 46-42 deficit into a 49-46 lead in less than a minute.
“As much as we as coaches want to take a bunch of credit for engineering the comeback, the planets have to align for you,” said Calistoga assistant coach Ray Particelli. “There are a lot of things that have to go your way.”
Particelli is partly referring to Calistoga’s success at the free-throw line in the fourth. The Wildcats went 9 of 13 from the stripe in the final frame after hitting just 2 of 7 in the previous three quarters.
On the flip side, Willits was only 2 of 4 from the line in fourth, a fact that clearly displeased the Wolverines’ faithful who made the trip.
What was even more impressive in Particelli’s eyes was the fact that the Wildcats completed the turnaround while missing several key players and with a few JV call-ups playing a healthy chunk of the game.
“To do it without five kids that we’ve had most of the season and three JV players getting some run, it was pretty fun,” he said.
The boys game was more of a defensive affair that didn’t carry as much excitement as the game it followed, but it still was a solid feather in the proverbial cap of the Wildcats.
After falling behind 14-9 after the first quarter, Calistoga responded by shutting out Willits 13-0 in the second quarter to take a 22-14 lead into the break that it would not relinquish for the rest of the contest.
Joey Russo scored a game-high 13 points, while Flores added eight and Ayala two. The win capped one of the best regular seasons in years for the Wildcats. At 11-14 overall, they equaled their combined win total from the past three seasons combined.
While the Wildcats were proud of that accomplishment, the team felt they could’ve done better had certain aspects of the season broken more in their favor. They didn’t discount their 11 wins by any means, but pondered how much better this season could have been.
“To be honest, I was kind of disappointed,” Flores said of the 11-win season. “I thought we could’ve gotten way more wins. If we didn’t have certain injuries or suspensions, I think we could’ve pulled out 15 or 16 wins, but things happen. Things don’t go according to plan, so I’m happy with the 11.”
Ayala agreed with that sentiment but also highlighted what they had accomplished.
“11-14, especially for what we had last year and the couple of years before, it’s something we’ll take and we’ll smile about it,” Ayala said. “We’ll be happy about it and talk about it in the future. It was a fun experience.”
Senior Day Trio
Calistoga head coach Cesar Cruz has only coached one of the Wildcats’ three seniors, Ayala, for more than a year, but still appreciated all the hard work each player had given this season.
Flores, who said this was his first year playing organized basketball, was an offensive sparkplug for the Wildcats this year. He also shouldered a massive load when Ayala missed several weeks with an ankle injury.
“Jasi, well, Jasi is Jasi,” said Cruz. “Once he understood where me and coach Ray were coming from, he was awesome. He bought in. He was our MVP. But coach told him early in the season, ‘You have a Ferrari, but you can’t have the keys to drive it until you start understanding what we want.’ And to his credit, he did. He figured it out.”
Avina played a crucial role as a rebounder and hustle player. He often guarded opponents’ much-more-skilled post players and more than held his own as he improved throughout the season.
“He’s just awesome,” Cruz said. “He’s listed at about 5-foot-10, but he played like he was 6-foot-5 with all his rebounding. Just a great kid. For him to finish like that, it’s just awesome. I’ll tell you what too, if he doesn’t come out, we don’t have a team. He was our fifth guy for most of the year.”
As for Ayala, he and Cruz share a special bond. Cruz was the one who inspired Ayala to join the high school team his sophomore year and the two became good friends over the next several years.
“Cesar is special to me. He’s the only kid who I’ve coached more than a year,” Cruz said. “We have a special relationship, so it’s sad to lose him, but he’s grown a lot.”
There was one major caveat to Saturday’s Senior Day festivities: the uncertainty of playoffs for the boys. The Wildcats applied for an at-large bid to the Div. 6 North Coast Section playoffs moments after their game finished.
With that in mind, the seniors reflected on their careers, which they weren’t sure were over or not yet.
“I tried to take it as just another game, but the feeling of it being the last one is obviously there. I mean, I hope it’s not the last one, but it was fun,” Ayala said. “I’m glad we got the win and now we have to wait a bit to see what happens.”
“Those are my brothers. I’m going to miss it,” Flores said. “If this was our last game, at least we played well. But I’m going to miss these guys for sure, though. Everyone is just so cool and so funny, they’ve always got my back for everything.”
“We all got along really well together,” Avina said. “I really liked that.”