When Travis Hightower looked at how the Chico State men’s basketball team fared this past winter, the Justin-Siena senior found two reasons to sign with the Wildcats.
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He liked not only that they finished in a respectable fifth place out of 11 schools in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, but that three CCAA opponents were in the Bay Area.
Chico State tied Cal State East Bay of Hayward for fifth behind Sonoma State, which tied Cal Poly Humboldt for third, and San Francisco State finished second behind Cal State San Marcos.
The games at East Bay, Sonoma State and SF State will be chances for his parents, Sonja and James Hightower of Fairfield, to see him play without having to drive two hours to his home games. The Wildcats have also played a Napa County team the last two years, NAIA school Pacific Union College of Angwin, but at home both times.
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Hightower led the Braves with 17.0 points per game and was second with 7.1 rebounds and 37 total 3-pointers made. He also used his long wingspan to tally multiple blocks, steals and loose balls each game.
After visiting and working out with teams at Napa Valley College, Santa Rosa Junior College, Cal State East Bay, Sonoma State and Chico State, he signed a letter of intent in front of family, friends, teammates and coaches on April 27 in Justin-Siena’s Gasser Center.
“I liked the college feel to it and the coaches and the players,” Hightower said at the ceremony. “They were really positive and (supportive). I could see myself playing there. My parents helped out a lot setting everything up, and then trusted in me. I’ll be doing a lot of skill work and weight training and stuff. Probably work on my shooting the most, to get better at it, because in college you need to be good at it.”
He’ll also work on his GPA, which he said is about 2.8, as he plans to major in kinesiology.
“I feel I’m prepared well for college,” he said. “I’ve toured the campus and I feel I can do well in that environment.”
James Hightower said his wife will likely visit their son a lot, too.
“We like the small atmosphere of Chico and the support they have in place, he seemed to like it,” he said. “Travis visited all the colleges, worked out with all their teams, and the decision was totally his. He just decided (in the third week of April), after we went on a trip to Italy for his graduation gift. We visited Rome, Florence, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Naples. We’d taken him to Hawaii a couple of times and we wanted to give him a different cultural experience this time.
“We came back and he said ‘I want Chico.’”
It was sad “It’s bittersweet because he’s developed some great friendships here, but he’s been putting in the work so he could go to a school he likes,” Sonja said at the ceremony. “I’m really happy for him because at the end of his junior year we didn’t think it was going to happen. He didn’t really have a lot of exposure.”
Two years ago, after finishing just fifth in the Vine Valley Athletic League, the Braves rebounded by going 6-2 during their most successful postseason ever. They were seeded No. 4 in the North Coast Section Division IV playoffs and defeated No. 13 Eureka, 49-31, and No. 5 McKinleyville, 55-38, before losing 68-55 to No. 1 Marin Catholic in the semifinals.
As a semifinalist, they were invited to their first-ever Northern California Regional playoffs in Division IV and seeded No. 4. They and beat No. 13 Union Mine, 71-55, No. 5 Lowell, 58-45, in home games before traveling to Redding and upset No. 1 Enterprise, 66-57 in overtime, in the semifinals. After stunning No. 3 Liberty Ranch 42-38 in Galt for the NorCal title, they fell 46-37 to Southern California champion Scripps Ranch of San Diego in the state championship game at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
“That summer, he started getting noticed and everything,” Sonja said.
Hightower had a strong and memorable senior season with his brother, freshman Asa Hightower, on the varsity squad with him. The Braves went 12-0 in the VVAL for their first league title in 23 years. They were seeded No. 2 in the NCS Division 4 playoffs this time, getting a first-round bye before beating No. 10 Lick-Wilmerding 66-39 and No. 3 Ygnacio Valley 71-60 to reach the final. Top-seeded University High of San Francisco won 67-59, denying Justin-Siena its first section crown since 1974.
Because of their runner-up state finish in Division IV the year before, the Braves were placed in the Division III bracket this year and seeded No. 7. They rolled through the first two rounds, beating No. 10 Los Gatos, 63-44, and upset No. 2 Rio Americano, 85-56, in Sacramento. But they couldn’t get past No. 3 seed Oakland Tech in the third round, losing 61-55 to eventual section runner-up.
“I felt we did good this year and that they’ll do even better next year,” Hightower said. “It was a fun journey, hanging out with teammates on and off the basketball court and having fun with them. I felt like we all pushed each other to do better. I felt like I was humble to start off with, so it just carried on throughout the games.”
They finished 28-6 after going 21-12 the year before, and Hightower got to play for a university with about the size and competitiveness he wanted.
One of the more intriguing matchups he may have at Chico State could be against Cal State Monterey Bay, which has one of the two players Hightower shared 2021-22 Napa County Player of the Year honors with — 2022 Vintage High graduate Jackson Corley.
Greg Clink is going into his 16th season as Chico State head coach, having guided the Wildcats to 11 postseason appearances — including eight Division II NCAA Tournament berths — while claiming three NCAA West Region titles and three CCAA regular-season crowns. He ink enters the 2022–2023 season with a career 264-145 record at Chico State. The Wildcats were 22-5 overall two years ago. Cink was previously an assistant coach at UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara and head coach at Gavilan College.
Justin-Siena head coach George Nessman, whose many coaching positions have included head coach at San Jose State from 2005-13, thinks Hightower will thrive at Chico State.
“He’s got a really courageous approach to the game,” Nessman said. “He’s not afraid to try things. He’s not intimidated in situations. That mental toughness is really important at the next level, and Travis has it. I’m really confident he’s going to play well there. His work ethic is excellent. He took a huge jump from junior to senior year in terms of his skill level and you get that (from training) in the gym.
A lot is riding on you in college basketball, so you have to bring a different mindset. Travis understands that. He’ll be ready for it. I know the Chico State coaches and they’re good coaches. They’ve had a lot of success over the years. I think Travis will be a good fit there.”
The 6-foot-7 shooting guard-small forward won’t be the tallest player on the team anymore. The Wildcats had freshmen this last season who stood 7 feet, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8.
“That’s a good thing because we didn’t want him to go to a school where he was going to be the biggest guy and be forced out of his comfort zone,” Sonja said. “I’m happy for him. I just hope that he gets the kind of friendships there that he’s gained here at Justin-Siena. If he gets half of that, he’ll be in great hands.
I’m confident that Coach Clink is going to take care of him and develop that relationship with him. As a parent, that’s the part that means the most, is going somewhere and being accept as part of that family. They’ve got a great program up there. Klink really develops his players. I really like what he’s got going on up there.”
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