Last season, the Sobrato High boys basketball team entered Blossom Valley League Mount Hamilton Division play with a stellar record only to finish 0-14. This season, the Bulldogs hope to carry their non-league momentum into the BVAL’s Santa Teresa Division, which starts in the first week of January. Sobrato entered the week at 7-2, showing glimpses of brilliance mixed in with plenty of miscues.
In any given high school game, even the best team will make hundreds of mistakes from a coach’s perspective, whether it’s not covering the pick and roll, failing to rotate on defense and simply making bad decisions. However, it’s the teams that minimize their mistakes that do well. For Sobrato, its season was encapsulated in a 42-41 win over Lincoln High in the opening round of the Prospect Tournament on Dec. 12.
Despite making myriad mistakes, the Bulldogs persevered and showed plenty of grit to hang on for the nail-biting win. Lincoln had two shots in the final seconds to win it, but neither went in. Sobrato followed the win with a blowout victory over Gunn before suffering a 58-38 loss to Piedmont Hills in the championship game.
“We come out here and play down to our competition instead of playing up to our potential, which is always the tough part as a coach,” Sobrato coach Sean Tate said moments after the team’s win over Lincoln. “Lincoln is a solid group and I’m not trying to take anything away from them, but we were the better team and we are the better team. But boy, we sure made that game a lot closer than it should’ve been.”
From Tate’s perspective, the game wouldn’t have been razor-thin close had the team not missed several uncontested layups throughout the contest. The Bulldogs held a 31-20 lead with 5 minutes, 10 seconds left in the third quarter before going on a severe scoring drought, failing to get on the scoreboard for the next 8:40. In that span, Lincoln went on a 11-0 run to cut its deficit to 32-31.
On the ensuing possession, Drew Hooks, one of only two returning starters for Sobrato, hit a huge 3-pointer to snap the scoreless streak and give the Bulldogs a much-needed basket. The teams traded points to make it 34-34 with 4 minutes left, and Sobrato went on a 6-0 run to seemingly take control. However, Lincoln responded with five unanswered points to make it a one-point contest.
Hooks came up big again, draining two free throws with 37.2 seconds remaining. Sobrato barely held on as Lincoln hit a shot with 19.6 seconds to go. The Bulldogs then missed the front end of a 1-and-1 before Lincoln had two shots on the final possession of the game.
“It was an ugly win, but we’ll take it,” Tate said. “We’ve got a good group. We’re doing good, they’ve got a great attitude and they didn’t quit when it got tough. They played through it and we escaped.”
Hooks and fellow junior Ignacio Bettinelli started every game last season, and they’ll be counted upon to make things happen and provide steady and consistent play. Bettinelli, along with senior guard Kevin Nguyen, are the most dynamic players on the team. Bettinelli is the only legitimate threat on the low back with his back to the basket—although junior Jakharee Cooper has the potential to develop into a post threat—while Nguyen looks smooth when he’s dribbling the ball, taking it to the basket or pulling up for a 3-pointer.
“Kevin is definitely a playmaker,” Tate said. “And Iggy keeps things going when things get crazy out there. When Iggy is not on the floor, all hell breaks loose. But when he’s out there, he’s a scoring threat all the time. If we just get him touches in the right spot, he’ll make the play—and they’re usually great plays.”
Nguyen provided the highlight-reel play of the game when he converted a runner in the lane midway through the second quarter. On the play, Nguyen curled off the right elbow area before faking right, which resulted in his defender slipping to the floor and landing on his butt. The lightning-quick change of direction gave Nguyen the breathing room for him to get an open look in the lane.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they suffered a tough break—or twist—when Nguyen rolled his ankle shortly thereafter. Sobrato can ill afford to lose an impact player given the fact it only has 10 players on the roster to begin with. The thin numbers—which resulted from players quitting and ineligibility—has given the Bulldogs no margin for error. Tate also has had to get somewhat creative to make sure practices are productive.
“We do a lot of drills and 4 on 4,” he said. “We’ll run a four-man shell and do different stuff and really go at it. Offensively, you can’t really scrimmage and make the mistakes you want to make in practice and then fix them so you don’t make them in the game. Sometimes the only look we can get is when we scrimmage the frosh-soph team. We have a lot of walk-throughs and not a lot of (typical) practices (you can do with the proper numbers)”
Cooper provides a big body, strong rebounding and solid defense. Sobrato didn’t have a single player score in double-figures against Lincoln, but it did have balance with seven players scoring. Bettinelli and Nguyen have the capability to average double-figures, as does Hooks, who averaged 10 points per game last year. The trio will be counted upon to make plays, especially when the team gets a lead.
“We still haven’t learned to get a lead and then amp it up even more,” Tate said. “We seem to get a lead, relax and get a little sloppy. We’ve got to learn to win and when we get in the driver’s seat to stay in the driver’s seat and not pull it back.”
With one senior, eight juniors and a sophomore, the Bulldogs are set up for a strong run next season. Tate has high hopes for this year’s team as well, not only for victories but to create a strong team dynamic and build momentum into next season.
“We’ve got a great group of kids and no matter what we do this year, it’s going to be crazy next year because we’re starting five juniors (when Nguyen is not starting),” Tate said. “I like this group a lot.”