But Sacred Heart Prep? Not the boys' team. Not ever.
Despite winning six Central Coast Section titles, including its first in 1995, and playing in 12 section championship games, the Gators had yet to reach the NorCal finals until now.
While the No. 2 -seeded Pinewood boys and No. 2-seeded Eastside Prep girls were almost expected to reach their respective Division V title game this Saturday at Folsom High, Sacred Heart Prep was not.
The Gators were seeded No. 3 but seemingly were getting by with one standout senior and a handful of role players — many of whom were playing on the JV team a year ago.
That, says SHP coach Tony Martinelli, is one reason why his team has been overlooked much of the season.
"These guys, so many people over looked them and questioned their ability to win," said Martinelli. "It kind of challenged them to keep that Sacred Heart identity."
This was not the team Martinelli was supposed to take to the NorCal finals. The 2010 and '11 squads — filled with depth, talent, size and experience — were supposed to be those teams. Imagine, teams with the McConnell brothers — 6-foot-6 Will, 6-5 Cole and 6-4 Reed — not challenging for a berth in the state finals.
When the twins, Will and Reed, graduated along with five other very talented players following last season's 26-3 season performance, the Gators' fortunes expected to go with them.
True, SHP did not defend its West Bay Athletic League title this season. The Gators lost twice to Pinewood and suffered six losses during the regular season. But, since losing to Marin Catholic on January 14 to stretch a rare losing streak to three games, Sacred Heart has gone 14-1 while losing only to Pinewood — a one-point setback.
"That three-game losing streak in the middle of the season kind of shook them up," Martinelli said of his players, who responded favorably to the adversity.
"I knew what we had," said Martinelli, who probably was the only one who did. "These juniors, they all played JV last year. And these seniors, they didn't much playing time but they practiced against some of the best players in the section last year."
That's why, Martinelli said, "It's been one of my favorite coaching experiences, not only at Sacred Heart, but anywhere. All these guys are pulling for each other and no one wants it to end."
Sacred Heart Prep (23-6) kept the season alive for at least one more game with a 58-57 victory over host and No. 2-seeded Modesto Christian (27-6) on Tuesday night in a NorCal Division IV semifinal. Cole McConnell scored 25 points and hit the winning free throw with four seconds left.
McConnell got 22 of his points in the first half as SHP grabbed a 37-32 lead at intermission. Ian Bennett's three-pointer with less than a minute to play put SHP on top, 57-55. Modesto Christian tied it up before fouling McConnell, setting up the winning free throw.
Bennett, a 6-5 junior who was on the JV team last season, finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. McConnell added five rebounds, four steals and was 10-of-19 from the field for 53 percent.
The Gators will face top-seeded Salesian of Richmond (32-2) on Saturday at Folsom High at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to the state finals at Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento on March 23. Salesian advanced with an 80-41 romp over No. 13 Arcata.
Salesian is ranked No. 1 in the state in Division IV by MaxPreps, No. 6 in the state overall and No. 38 in the nation. SHP, for comparison sake, ranks No. 16 in the state in Division IV.
Division V boys
Second-seeded Pinewood (27-2) will have a chance to equal and make program history when it takes on No. 1 St. Joseph Notre Dame of Alameda (28-4) in the NorCal finals on Saturday at Folsom High at 3 p.m.
The Panthers, who have yet to play in a state championship game, can accomplish that with a victory that would give them 28 wins — tying the 1989 team (28-3) for the most ever.
Pinewood, which is 7-0 this season in games decided by five points or less, held off Branson, 50-47, in the CIF NorCal semifinals on Tuesday night as senior center Solomone Wolfgramm had a team-high 17 points and 12 rebounds.
St. Joe's, meanwhile, advanced with a 66-45 win over No. 3 Capital Christian.
"A great team win tonight against a very tough opponent," said Pinewood senior Cameron Helvey, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds in his final home game. "We played as one tonight, and that was the key to our victory. We're very excited to go to the NorCal championship and we'll be ready to go."
Pinewood defeated Branson in the Redwood Classic earlier this season (69-63). With the win Tuesday, the Panthers also avenged a quarterfinal loss to the Bulls in the 2010 NorCal playoffs.
"It feels great now," said Pinewood coach Jason Peery. "That team was an amazing team; somehow through three coaches they have rekindled that magic — they were tough."
In a game where neither team led by more than five points, both squads got off to slow starts. Branson led by only 12-8 after the first quarter, but the Panthers used an 11-2 run to end the second quarter with the score 21-19. Wolfgramm and Helvey combined for 12 of Pinewood's 21 points.
Branson had a solid third quarter as senior guard Gabe Moynihan contributed eight points, including two three-pointers, and trimmed the Panthers' lead to one. Pinewood senior guard Bradley Naumann finished off the third quarter with a bang, hitting a three-pointer as time expired to give the Panthers a 40-39 lead.
"He's (Naumann) just a clutch player," said Peery. "He's made big threes all year in the biggest of moments and I'm not surprised at all, that was a huge momentum shifter."
Pinewood was down in the fourth quarter until Wolfgramm made a clutch put-back to tie the game at 47 with 1:08 to play. On Branson's next possession, senior Josh Gray was called for a critical five-second violation and turned the ball over with 1:00 remaining. Helvey made a huge put-back layup with 25 seconds left to put the Panthers up 49-47 and seal the win.
"It just feels great," said Wolfgramm. "Going up against a good team like that, we have a tremendous respect for them."
Branson shot 34 percent from the field while Pinewood was worse, at 27 percent. The Panthers, however, turned the ball over only eight times while the Bulls had 14 turnovers.
Division V girls
Eastside Prep can't accomplish what its 2008 team did, going 31-2 for the most victories in program history. That team, however, lost in the NorCal finals.
The Panthers of 2012 are only 17-14, but can surpass the '08 team by winning Saturday's CIF NorCal championship game and advance to the state finals for the first time ever.
The Panthers will play top-seeded Brookside Christian on Saturday at Folsom High at 1 p.m., with the winner advancing to the state finals at Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento on March 24. Brookside Christian (28-4) ended Pinewood's season, 60-37.
Second-seeded Eastside Prep advanced to its second NorCal title game with a 47-41 victory over No. 3 St. Joseph Notre Dame (22-11) on Tuesday night in East Palo Alto.
The victory avenged last year's 45-38 loss to St. Joe's, when Eastside Prep was also the No. 2 seed and the Pilots were No. 3. Hashima Carothers, a sophomore last season, managed only three points in that season-ending loss.
Carothers redeemed herself with 18 points and 18 rebounds on Tuesday while her teammates provided solid defense once again. The Panthers took control with a 17-1 run between the third and fourth quarters. Sophomore Charmaine Bradford added 12 points while sparking the second-half rally by Eastside.
In another Division V semifinal, Pinewood's streak of back-to-back state titles and three straight appearances in the state finale come to an end following its 23-point loss to top-seeded Brookside Christian at Chavez High in Stockton. The No. 5-seeded Panthers finished 20-13 with a young team that featured only two seniors on their 11-player roster.
Pinewood connected on only seven of 26 attempts from three-point range and suffered 18 turnovers. The Panthers trailed at the half, 33-16.
Freshman Gabi Bade led Pinewood with 12 points while junior Angelina Mapa added eight points for the Panthers.
Division I girls
For the past two months, Gunn has had a magical run as it shared a league title, won a Central Coast Section crown and was on the doorsteps of a NorCal final appearance for the first time ever.
All that came to an end, however, as the No. 7-seeded Titans fell to No. 3 Kennedy of Sacramento, 44-40, in the final seconds on Tuesday.
The toughest moment for the Titans was a questionable foul call on freshman Meghan Mahoney with 2.3 seconds remaining with the score tied at 40. That allowed Jessica Lauderdale of Kennedy to hit the two free throws that put Kennedy ahead.
"That was a tough call to end the game," said Gunn coach Sarah Stapp. "But I'm proud of the way our girls battled all night."
What made the decisive foul call difficult was the fact that Gunn's Julia Maggioncalda had tied the game at 40 on a three-pointer with 14 seconds left and then Gunn appeared to send the game in overtime when Kennedy's star player, Lynette Johnson, missed a shot with five seconds to go and Mahoney grabbed the rebound.
Lauderdale aggressively wrestled the ball away from Mahoney and made a motion toward the basket — with Mahoney being called for a foul and Lauderdale awarded two free throws.
With the Gunn team and fans stunned by the call and a delirious Kennedy crowd delighting in their good fortune, Lauderdale basically ended the Titans' season at 21-7 with her two free throws that made it 42-40.
Gunn's ensuing inbounds pass went out of bounds and Kennedy got the ball back, with Lauderdale being fouled. She again made both free throws for the final points of the night.
The game featured much drama throughout the night as both teams had runs where it looked like they were in control of the game, only to see the other team answer.
Leading 31-28 to start the fourth, Kennedy got a three-pointer for a 34-28 lead. But, the Titans dug deep and baskets by Cat Perez and Mahoney cut the score to 34-32. After a Kennedy basket, Perez cut the margin to one at 36-35 when she was fouled on a basket and made the free throw with 3:53 left.
For nearly three minutes, Gunn's offense went cold, but a great defensive effort kept Kennedy close as Gunn only trailed 39-35 until Perez cut it to 39-37 with 1:03 remaining. Kennedy converted one of two three throws with 45 seconds left, setting up Maggioncalda's tying trey before the disappointing finish.
"Our girls did a great job staying composed," said Stapp. "When we went down by six early in the fourth we could have folded, but we didn't. This has been a real special group and it has been an incredible year."
The game featured stellar defense by both squads as Maggioncalda held Johnson to just 11 points. Kennedy also was strong in limiting Perez to nine points on the night.
In addition to Perez's points, Zwerling tallied 10, Maggioncalda scored seven, Mahoney totaled six and Claire Klausner and Redfield scored four apiece.
"Sharing a league title, the first-ever CCS title in basketball in school history and making a great run in NorCal has been great," said Stapp. "What has really been rewarding is having all the fans come out and support us. It has made such a difference for us all year long."
The past four years, Gunn has made three CCS title-game appearances along with three NorCal appearances. In addition, Gunn is the only public school in the past eight years (in girls' basketball) to make the NorCal semifinals twice.
Gunn will lose seniors Perez, Maggioncalda, Jordan Humble and Hannah Riley off the third-winningest team in program history.