Cesar Ayala was in the shower on Sunday when his phone buzzed.
Then it buzzed again. And again. And then again.
Finally Calistoga’s senior guard finished his shower and checked his phone to see what the fuss was about.
He had an inkling of an idea about what to expect, but it wasn’t until he saw the Calistoga basketball group message that he figured it out: The Wildcats had made the playoffs.
“I like jumped, man,” Ayala said at Calistoga’s practice on Tuesday. “I was so excited.”
That’s an appropriate reaction to being the first Calistoga boys team to qualify for the postseason in 12 years.
The Wildcats made history on Sunday, becoming the first boys team to make the North Coast Section playoffs since the 2006-07 season. They took the underdog status they’d played with all season into Wednesday night’s Div. 6 opener as the No. 15 seed, playing at Kezar Pavilion against No. 2 seed Jewish Community-San Francisco.
“We were pretty happy for the kids,” said assistant coach Ray Particelli. “The big thing was just going 2-and-whatever last year and then making it to the playoffs this year, we’re pretty happy with the kids’ accomplishment.”
The Wildcats went 11-14 this season, a year removed from a 2-18 campaign that included a 0-9 league record. They won five of their last six games this year to sneak into the playoffs. Their win Saturday over Willits, a Div. 5 team, certainly helped their case, but nothing was certain until Sunday morning.
Following the news, the Wildcats gathered at head coach Cesar Cruz’s house for a party to celebrate.
“When I told them yesterday,” Cruz recalled Monday, “I called them and said ‘I don’t know who we’re playing yet or where, but we’re in.’ First thing they said was ‘Coach, we’re going to celebrate at your house, aren’t we?’
“That was fun. It’s just a big accomplishment.”
Whether the Wildcats won or lost Wednesday, just making the playoffs was a huge step for the program. Cruz has coached basketball at Calistoga for the last three years and has been working to rebuild the basketball culture at the school. Progress has been slow, but this year could mark a shift, especially with a playoff berth now locked.
“To change a culture, it doesn’t take very long. It takes a class or two,” Particelli said. “Cesar (Ayala) went from struggling for three years and now he’s graduating on a playoff team. These younger kids who just joined the program, they’re not locked into the culture of being a doormat. We had some success this year, we made the postseason, if things keep going like this, we’ll have some more success next year and hopefully get back to the postseason, and then all these kids who come in are thinking, ‘Hey, Calistoga makes the playoffs every year.’ Well, it’s every year for them, but that’s all part of changing the culture. … That’s how it all comes into play.”
Several players have even noticed a change happening already around school.
“Before when there was a basketball game it was kind of whatever, they didn’t care as much,” said freshman Christian Caldera. “But now people are more excited about the team.”
Caldera also believes that more of his fellow underclassmen have been drawn to the sport this year because of the team’s success. He thinks making the playoffs will only help to fuel that culture change Cruz has been working toward for the last several years.
“It shows the rest of the kids who don’t want to come out because of our old experiences,” Caldera added. “This encourages them to come out and be part of this because they see that we’re actually having some success and they want to be part of it.”
Being underdogs is nothing new for the Wildcats. It’s one of the things they thrive on. They’ve even surprised a number of teams this season who figured Calistoga would be the same cakewalk it had been for the better of nearly a decade, only to be shocked by the Wildcats’ talent and hustle.
Wednesday’s game against Jewish-Community (17-5) was to be another such case.
But the Wildcats didn’t care. They embraced the role.
“We’ve been the underdog all year,” Ayala said. “At the beginning of the year, if you had told anybody that we were going to make playoffs, they probably would’ve laughed at you. I love the fact that we’re the underdogs. We’re going to go in there confident and try to pull it off.”
Editor’s note: Check online at weeklycalistogan.com/sports for the story from Wednesday’s game.