Calistoga experienced its fair share of historic sports seasons last school year.
Both the volleyball and girls basketball teams had their best seasons to date, each making a deep run in the North Coast Section playoffs en route to earning a berth in the NorCal playoffs for the first time in their respective program histories.
While the 2018-19 varsity boys basketball team didn’t quite reach that level of success, the campaign the Wildcats posted was historic in its own right: it was the first time in 12 years that the program had made the playoffs.
The Wildcats return only four players from a team that went 11-15 overall, their winningest season since 2012-13. Those returners are sophomore Christian Caldera, juniors Ignacio Mendoza and Christopher Olivares, and senior Jesus Rojas-Mendoza.
Rounding out the 2019-20 Wildcats’ roster are sophomores Isaac Garcia and Jonathan Koffler, juniors Aaron Carrillo and Willmer Ulloa, and seniors Anthony Cortez, Marco Lopez and Eddie Sandoval.
Every single player saw the floor in Monday’s season-opening rout of Anderson Valley. The Wildcats led 30-12 at halftime thanks to seven first-half 3-pointers and went on to soundly win, 43-26.
Considering they’ve had only a handful of practices, it was a somewhat surprising result for sixth-year head coach Cesar “Shorty” Cruz and assistant Ray Particelli.
It wasn’t necessarily the win itself that caught them off guard as much as the manner in which the Wildcats played.
“I was happy, most of all, with the effort and their focus,” said Particelli, who is also the head varsity girls basketball coach. “They didn’t just play a scrambled game up and down the floor, and we happened to make more baskets; we played basketball, and that was the goal for tonight.”
Despite having a team full of new faces, the Wildcats looked like a group that had a couple years of experience playing together on Monday night. They shared the ball well and, for the most part, made smart passes and decisions. They still have a long way to go, it being the first week of the season after all, but they showed promise and potential in their opener.
“The biggest thing, like both of our teams, is I like how hard they play,” said Particelli. “I like that they’re unselfish and they try to do what’s asked of them. As a coach, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
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Particelli did the lion’s share of speaking about the team postgame. Cruz will officially be the head coach, but the two will share duties coaching both the boys and girls teams like they did last season. Cruz had actually stepped down from his position as head coach of the boys team following last season, but changed his mind over the offseason and decided to return.
Like Particelli, Cruz sees the potential with this year’s group. Unlike in past seasons, they have depth at nearly every position and are equipped with a few players who are a threat to hit from deep. Garcia and Koffler each showed off their shooting prowess on Monday by stroking three 3-pointers apiece, while Carrillo knocked down a pair from outside. Koffler finished with a game-high 12 points, Garcia 9 and Carrillo 8 to lead the Wildcats.
Cruz and Particelli also each pointed to Olivares, the team’s big man, as being much-improved. He scored only 4 points against the Panthers, but was a big help inside with rebounding. The Wildcats may get another big man in the coming weeks, Cruz and Particelli said, which they think could prove to be a huge addition if everything breaks how they hope.
“If those guys pan out, this is going to be a tough group to beat because teams aren’t going to outrun us, most teams won’t outshoot us, we’ve got decent depth at most positions and we have all the tools we need,” Particelli said. “Now, we just need to get better and understand the game better.”
Rojas-Mendoza will also be a key piece on both sides of the ball and should provide some needed veteran leadership, being the only senior returner on the team.
Most important of all could be Caldera, the team’s point guard. He scored only 2 points on Monday but Particelli singled out his play as an example of what he’s looking for from his team this year.
“I said, ‘Christian, you don’t look disappointed, you don’t act disappointed ,and I hope you’re not disappointed because you ran our offense, you were a key part of our defense, you dictated tempo for 32 minutes, you had a dozen assists, and you played great,” Particelli said. “Tonight you didn’t get 20, but I would take these results all year.”
Particelli and Cruz are looking for that sort of mentality and approach to the game from the entire team. Putting the team first is what they’re asking from the Wildcats, a simple idea but one that hasn’t always been the easiest to drill home in the past.
But so far they’ve noticed that this team is not like some of those past teams.
“What speaks highly about them, and the reason I came into the program, is the willingness to work,” Particelli said. “You can’t coach passion. You can hone it, but you can’t coach it. These kids want to be a good team and they’re willing to listen. They’re willing to do what’s needed.”
Monday’s game was a good first step in what the Wildcats hope will be a season of steady improvement as they look to make it to the playoffs for the second straight season.