Since the Pinewood girls are seeded No. 1 in the Division V playoffs, they will be favored each night they take the floor. That doesn't mean the Panthers have an easy path to the NorCal final and state championship game.
In fact, Pinewood's game against visiting St. Joseph Notre Dame (Alameda) on Thursday night was expected to the Panthers' most difficult of these playoffs.
Pinewood, however, is a veteran when it comes to the postseason. The Panthers have missed the NorCal playoffs only once since 1998, that one blip coming in 2008 when Pinewood failed to reach the Central Coast Section finals.
The Panthers also have three state Division V titles to their credit. They were ranked No. 2 in the state in their division last week and were No. 1 earlier this season.
Veteran coach Doc Scheppler, who has guided the program to all three state crowns, has another talented team (albeit young). The Panthers (23-6) took only three seniors into the NorCal playoffs, one of which (Rachel Marty) has missed nearly the entire year with an ACL injury. Seniors Emily Liang and Lauren Taniguchi have been solid contributors to a squad that starts four juniors — Kelsey Morehead, Hailie Eackles, Jenna McLoughlin and Miranda Seto.
Everyone shoots threes, which has been a staple for the Panthers throughout the years. They may not have much height — McLoughlin is the tallest at 5-foot-10 — but they press, help out on defense, create turnovers and don't often make the kind of mistakes that lead to losses.
If Pinewood is still alive after its second-round game, the Panthers likely will host No. 4 Branson on Saturday at 7 p.m. The winner of that game will advance to the NorCal finals on March 20 at Folsom High.
It is possible that the NorCal title game could be an all-local affair. That depends on No. 3 seed Castilleja (20-9), which opened play Thursday night at home against No. 6 Head Royce, a 59-36 winner over Ripon Christian on Tuesday night.
Castilleja hosted its first-ever NorCal game and, earlier in the day, had a school-wide pep rally to generate some added excitement. Ted Minnis, who is filling in as athletic director while Jez McIntosh is on sabbatical (he's still coaching the basketball team as an off-campus coach), was planning on bringing extra bleachers to accommodate an expected crowd in excess of 400 last night.
Castilleja reached the NorCal playoffs last season for the first time in school history, advancing all the way to the semifinals before finishing with a 23-9 record — best in school history.
Like Pinewood, the Gators have only three seniors on this year's team — Eve Zelinger, Tayo Amos and reserve Natalie Morin. Zelinger is the school's all-time leading scorer and will be sorely missed when this season concludes.
"It's been great having her," McIntosh said of Zelinger. "We'll miss her next year."
Fortunately for McIntosh, he'll have junior Natasha von Kaeppler back. The versatile 6-footer could wind up holding all the school records before she's done.
Castilleja not only received a favorable NorCal seed (bracket opposite Pinewood), but its second-round opponent (Branson) was a familiar one. The Gators beat Branson in a tournament finale earlier this season, 39-36, rallying from eight points down to win.
If Castilleja was able to duplicate that triumph, the Gators more than likely will be on the road Saturday — unless No. 2 seed Bradshaw Christian (Sacramento) is upset by University (San Francisco). If University prevailed, Castilleja will host University on Saturday. Those teams also have met this season, with the Gators posting a 68-53 triumph.
Thus, it could be a favorable bracket for Castilleja, which would love to reach the NorCal finals and spend the 2 1/2 hours on the road to face league rival Pinewood — with hopes of avenging last Saturday's 53-32 loss to the Panthers in the CCS championship game.
From here on in, it's all about making the most of opportunities. That's what the Sacred Heart Prep and Pinewood boys did on Tuesday in their respective NorCal openers.
It took a timely streak of three-point shooting, some opportunistic defense and flawless fourth-quarter free throw shooting for Sacred Heart Prep to earn its first-ever Division IV NorCal victory, a 62-50 decision over visiting Wallenberg. The victory was SHP's 15th straight.
In Los Altos Hills, Pinewood made the most if its first NorCal appearance in 14 years by pulling away from Bradshaw Christian, 55-42. The No. 8-seeded Panthers played at No. 1 Branson (22-6) on Thursday night.
The No. 4-seeded Gators (23-5), meanwhile, hosted a second-round game Thursday against No. 5 St. Patrick/St.Vincent (Vallejo), a 65-35 winner over No. 12 Calaveras. The victory was the first ever for the Gators at the Division IV level. Prep lost last year's first-round game and won once (2005) in three tries at the Division V level.
The Gators overcame a five-point deficit in the third quarter with a long-distance bullseye-shooting run by the three McConnell brothers. Down 32-27 midway through the third, Will McConnell hit a three and then stole the ball in the backcourt while pressing, making the ensuing layup to tie the game. Moments later Cole McConnell buried a three followed by another trey by Reed McConnell on the next possession. Cole hit another seconds later for a 43-35 Prep advantage going into the fourth quarter.
Sacred Heart Prep made all 13 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter and Wallenberg did not threaten again.
Reed McConnell led all scorers with 24 while Will McConnell added 16. Cole McConnell and Ty Cobb both had six points. Zach Watterson led Prep rebounders with five.
The McConnell's shooting was fortuitous for the Gators, who were challenged inside and also experienced trouble taking care of the ball during the first half. Wallenberg (20-8), the runnerup from San Francisco's Academic Athletic Association, was able to successfully work the ball inside and control both offense and defensive boards. The Bulldogs outrebounded the Gators, 24-12.
"That was a little bit of a surprise to us. They dug in and took the ball inside and I don't think we were as ready as we should have been," said SHP coach Tony Martinelli. "We were a little scattered in the first half. We took shots early in the possession and had little patience. The second half was more characteristic of how we play."
Sacred Heart pressed Wallenberg into nine second-half turnovers but equally important, it settled down when it had the ball. Sacred Heart turned the ball over eight times in the first half but only three times in the second half when it put the game away.
The path to the NorCal final is an extremely difficult one for Sacred Heart Prep, as a second-round win would earn a semifinal date with No. 1 St. Mary's (Berkeley) on Saturday. St. Mary's, along with No. 2 Salesian, are considered head and shoulders about the entire NorCal Division IV field and either team could win the state title.
While the Gators aren't favored to get past Saturday, should they make it that far, Martinelli will have all three McConnell brothers back next season along with six others. The team loses only one starter (Cobb) among its seniors. The other is Spencer Rosekrans.
The Pinewood boys, meanwhile, will lose only two seniors off this team, one of which is a big one — 6-6 Max Lippe. He's one reason why the No. 8 Panthers (20-7) advanced to the second round on Thursday night.
Lippe shook off a scoreless first quarter and scored 23 of his 27 points in the second half to lead the Panthers to a 55-42 victory over visiting Bradshaw Christian (Sacramento) in the opening round of the Division V playoffs on Tuesday night.
Lippe added 16 rebounds as Pinewood bounced back from its loss on Saturday in the CCS championship game. That 45-43 loss to St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic proved very costly as the Sharks received the No. 2 seed in NorCals and a favorable path to the finals.
Pinewood sophomore Dante Fraioli added 11 points and two while junior Aaron Daines had six assists. His defense was sparkling as he held Bradshaw Christian scoring leader J.J. Mina to a season-low four points.
Bradshaw held a 36-35 lead at the end of three quarters but Pinewood held Bradshaw to 3-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter as Pinewood went on a roll to score 20 points in the final period.
Girls' Division I
Senior Victoria Fakalata scored 24 points and added nine rebounds but it wasn't enough as Menlo-Atherton saw its season end in a 52-44 loss to Lowell in a first-round game at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco on Tuesday.
The No. 12-seeded Bears (15-17) got to within 43-42 with three minutes to play, but Lowell ran off a string of unanswered points to pull away. Sophomore Tennyson Jellins finished with nine points and six rebounds for M-A, which committed only 13 turnovers compared to the 29 it had in a 20-point loss on Saturday in the CCS finals.