A memory of finality from last season still lingers for the Mission Prep boys basketball team.
A year ago, the Royals advanced to the CIF-Central Section Division V championship game, where they gave up a 14-2 run over the last six minutes to fall 75-60 to Central Valley Christian.
“It’s tough,” Mission Prep senior guard Kevin Laird said. “It kind of stings, that loss last year.”
On Thursday night, Mission Prep looked like it was on track to get back to the title contest, taking advantage of a textbook tune-up opportunity in a divisional quarterfinal against visiting Kings Christian of Lemoore, winning 68-22 at Cowitz Court.
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“We feel like we have a legitimate shot this year of getting back to the finals and facing (top-seeded) CVC,” Laird said. “We have a chance to beat this team this year.”
The second-seeded Royals moved on to host third-seeded Fresno Christian (16-11), which topped Riverdale Christian 58-50, in a semifinal on Tuesday.
The divisional championship game, where Central Valley Christian (23-4) may indeed await, will be held March 5 at Selland Arena in Fresno. The Royals lost a rematch with the Cavaliers on Feb. 6, 59-53.
On Thursday, Laird led Mission Prep (12-15) with 16 points — 13 of which came in the first half — while Connor Woolpert had 14.
The 6-foot-2 Laird, who recently committed to play football at Cornell University, entered with team-leading averages of 15.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per outing.
Last season, the Royals went 20-12, moving on to the opening round of the regional divisional bracket. A pair of wiry all-San Luis Obispo County forwards in Jerry Casey (who went on to play at San Jose State) and Robbie Souza led that squad.
With the Royals not in a league, their schedule this year was cobbled together to feature a handful of highly competitive out-of-area teams, which is reflected in their overall record. Eight of Mission Prep’s 15 losses have come by eight or fewer points, including a 51-47 defeat at the hands of Cathedral of Los Angeles, which had 6-foot-9 Cal State Northridge-bound Frankie Eteuati and recently narrowly fell to Atascadero, 56-53, in the second round of the Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs.
“We’ve seen some really great teams,” said senior center Patrick Woolpert, who entered Thursday averaging a team-best 2.1 blocks per game. “It gives us that desire to win even more, and to get back to the finals to show all our hard work has been worth it.”
Among the Royals’ more punishing early-season experiences, further going to show the difficulty of their schedule, were 30- and 44-point losses to Campbell Hall of North Hollywood and Valencia, respectively. They’re ranked Nos. 63 and 38 in the Southern Section by MaxPreps.com, with the former featuring Louisiana Tech commit James Johnson.
“Our guys have seen some very tough opponents,” Mission Prep coach Terrance Harris said. “We’ve had some frustrating times and some losing streaks, but what we do early in the season helps prepare us for the battle in the postseason. That’s why we play the (regular-season schedule) we play.”
That cluster of narrow defeats also included close calls to San Luis Obispo (by a score of 52-45) and St. Joseph (44-42), not to mention a 61-43 win over Templeton. All three were second-round Southern Section playoff squads in their respective divisions.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get a (divisional championship) banner,” Laird said of the benefits of the arduous schedule.The Royals also handily swept a two-game season series with Pioneer Valley, a last-place PAC 7 team that nonetheless made a case for the depth of that volatile league when it shocked fourth-place Paso Robles in late January.
“When we get to the playoffs, we know that no matter who we face, we can compete,” Harris said. “We have no fear of any opponent.”
In the first half alone Thursday, 10 players scored for Mission Prep, which took a 46-15 lead into the break before cruising to the finish. Aaron Odland and Jesse Davis both finished with a team-high seven points for seventh-seeded Kings Christian (8-14).