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Napa High boys basketball

Three of the Napa High boys basketball team's senior leaders are, from left, Charles Gravett, Joe Carnazola and Mitch Hippauf.

Kirk Kirkpatrick photo

The Napa High boys basketball team’s senior leaders are leading scorer Joe Carnazola, big man Mitch Hippauf and versatile role player Charles Gravett, a two-sport athlete who would love to be able to tell the baseball team he’ll be coming later this year because he’s in the hoop playoffs.

The fourth-place Indians (11-15, 4-5 MEL) will have a chance to snap a 13-year playoff drought if they can knock off second-place Wood in Tuesday’s Senior Night game and first-place Vacaville beats third-place Rodriguez (5-4 MEL).

If those both happen, Napa and Rodriguez will tie for third place and flip a coin for the Monticello Empire League’s third and final CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth. The Napa girls got into last year’s playoffs on a coin flip after tying Vintage for third.

Whether they get a second season or not, the Indians’ three leaders will eventually move on from the high school court, and talked about it before Monday’s practice.

“I’m sad basketball is ending. It’s been a big part of my life,” admitted Carnazola, who also played football in his first three years at Napa High. “It’s always been my favorite sport.”

Added the 6-foot-8 Hippauf. “Basketball has always been a part of my life. It’s been a year-round thing for me because it’s the only sport I play. It’s been my whole high school career, really.”

Gravett said he’s loved playing the game his whole life and wants to continue with this team as long as possible.

“I’m sad this is my last year and we just have a few games left,” he said. “I think this season is going pretty good. It’s been really fun, even though we’ve had a lot of ups and downs and lost a lot of really close games. We’ve gotten down in the first half to a lot of teams that we could have beat, and we’ve come back only to lose by a couple.

“It’s frustrating sometimes because we’ve been right there and we have all this potential. Every game in the Monticello Empire League, we go into it thinking ‘we have a chance to win this,’ and if we play our game we have the kind of team that can win against anybody. The records don’t really show it, but everyone in this league is pretty even. We could have won almost all of those games.”

The players credit their second-year head coach, former all-league player and Napa High grad Zack Cook, with keeping the team on track this season.

“The coach says he wants to change the way people think of Napa High basketball,” Gravett said. “He wants us to have a reputation for being tough. Before, it seems like our basketball team didn’t have a reputation for anything.”

Hippauf agreed.

“We’re kind of known as a football school,” he said. “The coach wants to make a name for the basketball team, too.”

They like their coaches

All three said they like Cook’s understated style.

“If we’re down a lot at halftime, the coach tells us it’s on us,” Carnazola said. “At this point in the season, especially being seniors, we’ve all been in this position and kind of know what to do. We know we have to get together, put our heads down and follow through. When we do that, we win, or at least get close.

“For the most part, Coach is pretty quiet. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t speak up when something needs to be said. He’s good at picking us up, but he will also kick us in the butt when we need it.”

Gravett said Cook, who is assisted by Greg Johnson, helps the players keep from getting down on themselves after losses.

“The coach is good at helping us move on,” said Gravett. “If we made mistakes, he lets us know it’s in the past. He’ll help us with what we did wrong and tell us how to fix that so we can get going forward again. Everybody gets along with the coaches. It’s a really fun group.”

Hippauf said it helps that Cook is not all work and no play.

“We all like to joke around,” he said, “but we have that good balance of joking time and hard-working time. The coach does a good job of being a part of both, instead of just being serious all the time.”

The players were looking forward to Thursday’s second installment of the Big Game and felt they had something to prove after Vintage took the first one on Napa’s home court.

“It was a good game last time,” said Gravett, “but it was tough for us because we could have won. We didn’t play that great. We’re the underdogs coming into the next one, so we have a little chip on our shoulder. They got us in our gym, now it’s our turn to get them in theirs. I especially love the excitement and the energy in the gym for the Big Game. Everyone is hyped up and ready to go.”

Hippauf was also looking forward to Round 2.

“I love the Big Game atmosphere, especially when we play at Vintage,” he said. “I love the animosity that the Crushers bring. It gets me and my teammates pumped up and I like that. We’re hungry, we want that win so we can take them down from their pedestal. I had a terrible game against them last time. This time we have to make the most of our size advantage. Vintage is more of a finesse team; we need to bully them next time.”

Carnazola said Napa was out for some payback.

“This has kind of been Vintage’s year in all the sports we play against them, so we definitely want this one. They had a really good game from the 3-point line last time, so maybe this will be our turn.”

Added Hippauf, “Yeah, they were hot for sure.”

They have different roles

The three players have very different roles for the Indians.

Carnazola is the scorer, Hippauf is the big man and Gravett is an important role player who does whatever is needed, even if it’s not very glamorous.

“I’m not really a big scorer or rebounder,” Gravett said. “My role is to just kind of go in there and defend, and do whatever the coach asks me to do. If I have to guard a certain person, or if I have to get rebounds, if I have to get open because too much attention is going to Mitch or Joe, I just do whatever needs to happen and play my hardest every time. If I’m open, I’ll shoot a three, but I don’t really shoot them that much. I think I’m like 2 for 4 from 3-point range.”

Hippauf said his primary job is making a difference on the defensive end.

“It’s my job to be a presence, block shots and come down with rebounds,” he said. “Offensively, the coaches expect me to be play big underneath and make layups. I take the open shots when I get them up to mid-range, pretty basic big-guy stuff.”

That’s not to say he wouldn’t like to shoot from long distance.

“I know shooting threes isn’t my game,” Hippauf chuckled, “but one of these games I might spot up.”

Carnazola chuckled that he wished he were shooting 50 percent from the 3-point arc.

“I love shooting threes,” he said, “but I’ve been struggling a little lately. I know my role this year is usually to be a scorer. I like to take it to the basket if a smaller guy is guarding me and get ‘and ones’ (three-point plays). I get hit a lot, but that way I draw fouls and get to the free-throw line a lot.”

Not afraid of contact

Carnazola said he gets a lot of contact, but usually it doesn’t bother him.

“If I think it was on purpose, I might give them a little stare down,” he chuckled, adding that opponents also try to get in his head occasionally. “Some players talk to me a lot. I feel like it makes me play better. One guy for Armijo was trying to get into my head. I scored a bunch of baskets and put him on the bench, which gave me a lot of pleasure.”

It’s a much more physical game for Hippauf.

“Getting knocked around a lot is part of being a big guy,” he observed. “Being down low a lot, I get elbowed in the face and in the ribs, and I get held all the time by the jersey, holding my arms behind my back or holding me down when I’m going up for a rebound. It’s pretty frustrating. I know the referees aren’t going to change anything because I say so, so I let Coach Johnson handle talking to the officials. He’s always got our back and he’s a fighter.”

But that’s not all Hippauf has to put up with.

“It seems every game I’m the target for a lot of talking. Everybody chatters in my ear, everybody plays a little dirty, I’m the guy they want to mess with,” he said. “If I miss a layup, they’ll say ‘you should have dunked that.’ We don’t talk a lot, but we play physical, which is kind of our way of saying something.”

The players said their lives are pretty quiet off the court.

“A lot of my time is spent over at the baseball field working out after basketball season,” said Gravett. “I don’t really have time for a lot of other stuff. I’m pretty low key, I don’t really do that much other than hang out with my family a lot.”

Hippauf said he’s either playing sports or working, and Carnazola hangs out with friends.

“There’s not a lot to do here beyond that,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the players never get together.

“During basketball season, we hang out a lot,” Gravett said. “We’ll go to lunch together because we all have weight training together before lunch. We have team dinners a lot before games. Parents take turns hosting those at their homes.”

And what about when high school is over?

“I don’t really know what I’m going to do yet as far as college goes,” said Gravett, who carries a 3.7 GPA and plans to major in sports management. “I’m going to wait and see what happens during baseball season and move on from there. I’m hoping to play baseball in college. Wherever that takes me, I’m willing to go.”

Carnazola, who carries a 4.0 GPA and also wants to major in sports management, hasn’t quite given up on his basketball career.

“I was thinking about playing after high school. But I feel like I’ve worked really hard academically so I can attend a more prestigious academic school, and usually the basketball teams are better there. But I might try and be a walk-on. I’ve got into a few colleges, but I’m trying to go to San Diego State or Oregon State.”

Hippauf knows already there is more basketball in his future.

“I recently committed to Simpson University in Redding, and I’m looking to play there,” he said, adding that he plans to major in business administration.