Cameron Stanley knelt down and touched the oversized arrowhead logo painted on the newly refurbished hardwood at center court in the Coach Dean Nicholson Gym.
His Apaches had just lost in the second round 69-57 to a tight-playing squad from North High of Bakersfield on Feb. 15. Stanley, a senior, took the loss hard. He had wanted to take his team back to Selland Arena and win the championship that had eluded two of the teams he played for in previous years.
Fans congratulated him, knowing his contributions this season included elevating him to the third highest all-time score leader in Sanger history. And Stanley reciprocated to every single person who offered him a pat on the back or kind words. He sometimes had a little trouble getting the words out as emotion crept up on him.
“It meant a lot,” he said, referring to his moment at center court. “These people mean so much to me. I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for basketball, for Sanger or my teammates.”
Coaches had spoken, his teammates devoured the leftover hotdogs and two pizzas and most had left after the game. Stanley was among the last to leave. “That’s all I got,” he said. The crowd that had been standing outside in the rain clapped as he emerged.
The mood was somber. Fellow senior Jaron Trevino sighed just after the game ended. “Just gotta breathe,” he said.
Coach Al Alvarado III said he wasn’t good at goodbyes. He said just three completed four years in the Sanger basketball program. He referred to Sal Dhillon, who scored 11 points, dished three assists and pulled down 10 rebounds, Stanley and Trevino.
“That’s a good team,” Alvarado said. “They’re together, 100 percent bought in. You younger players see that.”
And of the loss, he said North’s team was good, played together well. “It was a tough one, tough loss. But I’m proud of you. We have guys who stepped up. We never quit. You kept fighting. I’m proud to be along for the ride with you guys. Walk out of here with your heads held high.”
Assistant coach Mark Alvarado said he appreciated every one of his athletes. “It’s not easy, and we don’t make it easy,” he said. “Cameron, keep your head up. You made huge strides. Your road is not going to stop right here. And thank you Sal, a big guy who does everything I ask. Sal is one hell of a player. Cam, I hope you take this and use this as fuel for your game.”
Apaches vs. Hoover
Hoover’s Kamron Ahmed scored first for the Patriots just seconds after the start of the first-round California Interscholastic Federation Central Section Division III Championships.
Then teammate A.J. George added a couple baskets, while Sanger’s Apaches scrambled to put something together on their side of the court. The Patriots built up a lead of 12 points until 2:57 minutes left in the first quarter when forward Sal Dhillon finally ended the Apaches’ scoring drought.
Sanger, the No. 3 seed, just couldn’t find the rim, missing more than a half dozen seemingly well placed shots. And Hoover, the No. 14 seed, capitalized.
“I knew they were going to come out on fire,” coach Al Alvarado said after the game. “They’re a pretty athletic team.”
The quarter of the Feb. 13 game at Coach Dean Nicholson Gym ended with Hoover on top 16-8.
“We started out really slow,” said Apache Luke Dillon, who had eight points for the night. “And they were just ready to play.” At one point in the game he twisted an ankle but came back later in the game to help ignite the spark that enabled Sanger to overcome the start and win 65-51. Dillon added six assists, the fourth time this year he has reached that number.
That win set up the second-round meeting with North of Bakersfield, the No. 6 seed. North’s Stars had defeated No. 11 Morro Bay. The winner of the second round faces No. 2 Immanuel on Wednesday in Reedley.
Stanley scored 22 for the Apaches, matching that from George of the Patriots. Stanley said Hoover’s fast start caught his team by surprise. “We didn’t expect it,” he said. “Hoover played great. As coach said we weathered the storm and we fought back. We just, you know, kept going.
“When the shots aren’t falling we gotta play defense, we gotta rebound, keep our heads right. And we did.”
Dillon said the Apaches’ post-season depends on maintaining momentum. “We just need to come out how we did at the end (for the remainder of the playoffs),” he said. “We just trusted each other. Didn’t lose faith.”
Mark Alvarado praised the team after the Hoover win. “Way to come back and finish it,” he said, giving extra props to Dillon for getting the ankle taped and returning in the second half.
A big part of the win came from the bench. Alejandro Mendibles and Jesse Piceno each added two three-pointers, helping put the game out of reach of the Patriots and Sanger ahead for good.
Mendibles’ first came with about 3 minutes left in the first half, putting the Apaches ahead for the first time in the game, 22-21. The crowd erupted. And while the number of those attending the home game didn’t quite match the hefty turnout a week earlier for Memorial, they were about as loud. Mendibles sent his second through the net at 5:41 minutes in the fourth quarter.
Mendibles said he had a strategy. “Just stay calm,” he said. “Just do it like you do it in practice.”
He said the team was pretty confident after the Hoover win. “It was a good win today,” he said. “We just have to get ready for the next opponent and keep this same intensity every game.”
Assistant coach Mike Paredes told the team to focus on every moment and not worry about the next potential game. “You lose, you’re done,” he said. “Never worry about tomorrow. You gotta worry about now. Take advantage of this moment. This moment is now.”
Al Alvarado said the Hoover win was a great team effort. He said when one player is having an off night, the best thing to do is not fixate on the negative but press harder on the defense. “You can’t be down on yourself,” he said. “Your team is there to bring you up.”