Before the Napa Valley College Summer League, the last time Imani Lopez played in the NVC gym was for Ascending Life Prep in a 115-93 loss to Golden State Prep in February.
Yes, Golden State Prep, the sister team of perennial national power Prolific Prep.
As a sophomore two seasons ago, the athletic, 6-foot-3 Lopez led the Vintage High varsity squad with 12.1 points per game before transferring to a Tracy academy. He returned to Vintage this past school year, but couldn’t play for the Crushers due to transfer rules.
Blake Murray, who was also a sophomore on that Vintage team, is glad to have Lopez back for their senior season.
“We haven’t played together in a long time but whenever we used to play, like in open gyms, we’d always we have really good chemistry,” Murray said after last Tuesday’s summer game against American Canyon. “He didn’t get to play last year, unfortunately, and that kinda sucked because he’s one of our really big assets. It’s great to have him back.”
The Crushers finished 10-14 overall and 5-7 in the new Vine Valley Athletic League, fifth out of seven teams, under second-year head coach Rob Johnson. The year before, Vintage was 12-14 overall and tied for fourth in the Monticello Empire League with crosstown rival Napa High at 4-6.
Like Johnson, predecessor Jeff Sickler was the head coach for two years, after Ted Ward had been at the helm the three seasons before that, and Brett Wedding for two years before him.
Ben Gongora, a 1993 Napa High graduate who played for the 1992 Sac-Joaquin Section championship team, was also the Crushers’ head coach for two seasons – in 2003-04 and 2004-05. He’s been back coaching Vintage this summer, following Johnson’s departure.
His hiring must be approved by the Napa Valley Unified School District Board of Education at its Aug. 8 meeting, but Murray and Lopez are excited about the prospect of playing for Gongora.
“I feel like Ben brings the best out of everyone, and he brings it straight to you. He doesn’t try to sweet-talk nothing. He tells you how it is, and that’s how it’s going to be,” Lopez said. “I think that works really well for us.
“I feel like already we have improved a lot with knowing our roles and we work really well as a team now. We move the ball, we look for other options when something’s not there, and we’re under control. Last year I felt like we rushed it and tried to score too fast, but here we’re doing good, playing at our own tempo.”
Murray said Gongora’s coaching style seems to fit this group well.
“It’s good because what he expects from us, we expect from each other and ourselves,” he said. “You’ll bring it to another level and he’ll say ‘My expectation for us is up here,’ and it gives us encouragement to always want to get better.
“Last year, no one really knew their roles and there were a lot more boundaries, but now we feel way more comfortable together on the court. Everybody’s kind of settling in and we are more disciplined. The guys we’re playing with now have been playing us for three years, so we have really good team chemistry.”
Watching Tuesday’s Vintage game against American Canyon were Brett Wedding, a 1999 Napa High grad whose JV team was coached by Gongora, and Scott Thom, who coached Vintage’s JV under Gongora before taking over as varsity head coach for four years. Wedding stepped down this year as American Canyon’s varsity head coach after five seasons.
Vintage had been 5-0 in the summer league before relinquishing a big lead and falling by a couple of points to American Canyon.
“A couple of things I feel like we could fix really easily, especially with Ben as our coach,” Lopez said. “I feel like he can help us with those things so when season comes it’s not a problem.”
“Yeah,” Murray said of Gongora, “he came in and said ‘Defense is the No. 1 priority; it’s non-negotiable. Defense is what we’re going to be known for.’”
During the seven-game summer league, which Vintage wrapped up against Vallejo on Thursday, the Crushers planted the seeds for a season they hope will end with their first playoff appearance in five years.
“It’s summer and we’re having fun and just seeing how it goes, but we’re going to be ready for the season,” Murray said.