The third time’s the charm.
That’s what the 14th-seeded St. Helena boys basketball team was hoping as it prepared to open the CIF North Coast Section Div. 5 playoffs at No. 3-seeded Clear Lake on Wednesday night in Lakeport.
It was to be the third meeting between the teams this season, with Clear Lake having won the first two in North Central League I play.
“I’m just so happy for the kids,” head coach Jim Gamble said after practice on Tuesday. “The four returning varsity players met back in November and set a goal for themselves that they wanted to make the playoffs this year, and we did it – by the thinnest of margins, but we did it.”
The Cardinals (24-2, 14-0 NCL I) entered Wednesday’s rematch riding a 15-game winning streak, having run the table in league play. The Saints (13-12, 8-6 NCL I) struggled the first time against Clear Lake, falling 59-32 in Lakeport on Jan. 14. But they played what they considered one of their best games of the year at home the second time, in a 72-61 loss on Feb. 1.
“They’re a very good basketball team, but we gave them a run for their money last time we played them,” Gamble said. “There are no secrets now. We know everything about them and they know everything about us.”
Despite the familiarity, the draw was the source of some frustration for Gamble. He would’ve preferred the Saints face a new opponent instead of a team they’ve already seen twice this year.
“Ideally, you don’t end up playing a league foe,” he said. “It’d be so much fun to face a team we haven’t seen this year. But it is what it is, and we’re going to make the best of it.”
The Cardinals caught the Saints in February during what St. Helena still considers to be an upswing in its season. The consensus among the Saints is that they’re playing their best basketball of the season. It was evident in their 69-55 thrashing of Cloverdale in last Thursday’s regular-season finale, a win that probably helped them lock up their berth.
But the Saints left Thursday’s game unsure of their playoff fate. While the win would have been a nice way to wrap up the year and send off the seniors, uncertainty still lingered in their minds about whether or not they had just played their last game of the season.
They found out Sunday their season would continue, completing one of their preseason goals. That made getting in extra special, especially for the seniors.
“That was for sure cool,” said senior Nick Jeworowski. “I felt that I was at least one of the leaders of this team and it just made me feel like I did what I was supposed to do, and that was a good feeling.”
Jeworowski is one of the few Saints with playoff experience, although not much. He was a JV call-up two seasons ago as a sophomore for St. Helena’s last playoff run. He got a few minutes of on-court action in the Saints’ blowout loss to Bentley that year, as did current junior guard Jonathan Gamble.
That limited postseason experience will be put to the test Wednesday night in Lakeport. The Saints’ opponents have playoff experience in abundance, with six Cardinals returning from last year’s playoff team. Several of those players have experienced the postseason the last two seasons.
St. Helena was keyed in on several matchups. One such player was junior guard Darius Ford, who lit up the Saints for 20 points last time the teams met. He was leading Clear Lake at a 14.1-points-per-game clip going into the playoff game.
The Cardinals also employ some unique defensive schemes, such as their 1-2-2 full-court press. The Saints figured it out in some regard in the February matchup and hoped to find more success on Wednesday.
To top it off, a hostile environment awaited the Saints in Lakeport.
All these factors might scare some teams, but St. Helena was undeterred.
“We just have to play confidently,” Coach Gamble said. “We have to relax and have fun. I’m expecting the Clear Lake gym to be packed. It’s going to be partisan crowd, they’ll be going crazy up there, but that’s what we’ve been aiming for all year. We want to play in that kind of environment. So we’re excited for the opportunity. Now we just need to go out and execute, play full of confidence, and things will take care of themselves.”
Editor’s note: Check online at sthelenastar.com/sports for the story from Wednesday’s game.