First-year Eastside Prep girls' basketball coach Donovan Blythe recalled being handed a "deck of cards" in November. It included four freshmen, a sophomore, one junior and one senior.
The big question for Blythe was how this hand would play out; just how was he going to incorporate his limited personnel of just seven players with an up-tempo style of play.
By the end of the season, Blythe put his cards on the table and nearly won the whole pot. Eastside Prep was unique like no other school in the state this season and though its remarkable run ended just a step short of the CIF state title game, the Panthers can reflect on a special season that comes around once in a generation.
Eastside Prep's memorable season and 25-game win streak came to a halt on Saturday in a 64-24 loss to defending CIF state Division V champion and top-seeded Branson (28-7) of Ross in the CIF NorCal Division V championship game in Folsom. Eastside Prep finished the season with a 31-2 record, best in school history.
"The girls had a phenomenal season and nobody had us going that far," Blythe. "There were no tears. The girls handled it like professionals."
Eastside Prep's season included its 11th Christian Private Schools Athletic League title, its second-ever CCS crown and baffled many that such a successful season could be achieved with only seven players.
"It's rough having a team with seven players," said Blythe. "It's hard in practice because you need bodies. The girls just went out, played hard and competed in every game."
Not only were the Panthers successful on the court, but they were arguably the most entertaining unit in Northern California. Eastside Prep's frenzied play included a dizzying transition game and a bothersome defense that could quickly collapse in the lane or, in a moment, extend to the perimeter. Blythe figured he used an average of 5 1/2 players per game and to play that up-tempo style with consistent efficiency and succeed for nearly four months was eye-popping.
Blythe and assistant coach Kevin Seiter knew they had some talent at the start of the season and had the lofty goal of seizing the CIF state Division V title. Yet, with such a young lineup, it took Blythe a few games to realize that he had a special unit of players that could go a long way.
"I knew we had something special when we beat St. Francis (Mountain View) in the Palo Alto tournament in December," said Blythe. "That's when I knew we had something special."
Eastside Prep was well-conditioned and utilized a good work ethic throughout the season, which started with practices at 6 a.m. The Panthers also did an admirable job of staying out of serious foul trouble throughout the season en route to beating some very talented schools.
Eastside Prep beat 10-time CCS champion Pinewood twice, West Bay Athletic League champion Castilleja twice, St. Francis, St. Francis-CCC and highly regarded Liberty Christian in the NorCal semifinals last Thursday.
Senior center Samantha Bunch was the centerpiece of the Panthers for the past four years with her athletic presence and leadership in the post on both ends of the court. Blythe knows it will be difficult to find a post presence next season to compliment Samantha's sister, junior Shayla Bunch and sophomore forward Felicia Anderson. A new addition or two also will take the pressure off of Eastside Prep's talented backcourt of freshmen guards Ahjalee Harvey and Ausjerae Holland.
"I don't want to start thinking about losing Sam," said Blythe. "We will definitely miss her."
Eastside Prep's road to the NorCal title game was anything but a picnic by playing three games in five days. After getting past visiting No. 6 Head Royce in a closer-than- expected 43-38 game in the opening round of the tournament, the No. 3 Panthers took a four-hour bus ride to Redding and upset No. 2 Liberty Christian (30-2) two nights later in the semifinals, 72-60, as Harvey scored 26 points and Anderson added 24.
On Saturday, the Panthers bused three hours for the championship game in Folsom. In less than three days, the Panthers played two high-stakes games and spent 14 hours in a bus.
"That was vicious," said Blythe on the hardship of playing on the road in the Division V playoffs. "I didn't play and it wore me out."
Eastside met its match versus a Branson unit that had 14 players, started four seniors and had ample available talent on the bench. Branson also had invaluable playoff experience.
"We came out sluggish," said Blythe on Saturday's championship game. "Branson is very good, well-coached and I have a lot of respect for them. We ran across a team of veterans."
Branson, which scouted Eastside Prep three times this season, made that scouting pay off by defensively by containing Samantha Bunch, Harvey and Anderson. Only Bunch scored in double figures with 14 points. Eastside received a tough break early when Anderson injured her backside, went out for a while and wasn't the same the remainder of the game. Branson took advantage by keeping extra eyes on Harvey at the point and forced 23 turnovers for the game.
Bunch added seven rebounds and two blocks while Holland tallied seven points.
In the semifinals, Eastside Prep made 11 three-pointers in its upset win over Liberty Christian, Harvey tallied 11 of her team-high 26 points in the second quarter as Eastside Prep grabbed a 35-33 halftime lead.
Anderson netted 11 of her 24 points in the fourth quarter and drilled three consecutive three-pointers to help the Panthers run away down the stretch. Anderson made six three-pointers for the game and was assisted by Holland and Leanne Martin, who scored 11 and seven points, respectively.
"We all know when we go out that it's just a basketball game," said Blythe. "We are young and I'm proud of the way we came a long way in a very short time. The girls had a phenomenal year."