Just like in football, the Arroyo Grande High boys basketball team’s CIF-Southern Section title run can be traced back to a loss.
The Eagles look at themselves differently since Jan. 4, even though they wear the same uniforms and sneakers. They weren’t playing well together, given the fact that they’d recently welcomed a group of five players who were part of the school’s section-winning football team.
But the Eagles have redeemed themselves greatly since their 25-point loss to Righetti in the PAC 7 basketball opener at Arroyo Grande.
Flash forward to this week, and the Eagles are a different team. No. 8 seed Arroyo Grande (22-8) will play No. 2 Pasadena (24-6) in the Division 3AAA championship game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Anaheim Convention Center.
The previous and only other time the Eagles were in a section title game was in 1970, when they lost 45-41 to Wilson of Hacienda Heights in Division 2A.
The 1989 Mission Prep boys were not only the last county team to win the Southern Section but also reach the final. Before that, Atascadero won titles in 1969 and 1974 and Morro Bay did so in 1976.
San Luis Obispo won its only section title in 1952.
“People are expecting a lot from us right now because we made it this far,” Arroyo Grande forward Brennan Rivera said. “I think ever since we beat Righetti, just huge expectations on us to keep our streak alive, to just win it all and keeping on going onto state.”
The Eagles never gave up, just like in football. To start the season, the Arroyo Grande football team lost 38-28 to Lompoc on Sept. 2, 2011, but then won 13 straight games and captured the school’s first division title since 1998. That meant the basketball team, under coach Ryan Glanville, didn’t get a good chunk of the roster — including starters Brent VanderVeen, Matt Willkomm and Rivera — until Dec. 10, the day after the football championship.
By then, the Eagles were just 1-3.
Things gradually came together, with VanderVeen, who’s a future Oregon State quarterback, becoming an inside force with regular double-doubles in points and rebounds and Willkomm and Rivera finding their place alongside fellow starters Jackson Zimmerman and Gunnar Gomez. Garrett Owens and Grant Talley are also football players who transitioned to basketball, with Owens — an Oregon State-bound kicker — being one of the first players to come off the bench.
After the football players arrived, the Eagles went 21-5 and are on a 15-game winning streak since the Righetti loss. In the playoffs, Arroyo Grande has survived two long road trips — to West Torrance and Palm Desert in the second round and semifinals, respectively. The Eagles’ run is highlighted by an upset of top-seeded Damien in a home quarterfinal game.
Arroyo Grande will look to achieve a rare feat by winning both the section’s football and basketball titles in the same school year.“All five of them won the (section) title in the fall,” Glanville said of the football players, “so they’re not afraid of being in moments or big high-profile games. Some of them enjoy being in that big moment.
“For a lot of high school kids, if it’s a big shot or big moment, they might not feel comfortable taking it. We have quite a few players who relish that moment. They like to take that big shot.”
Pasadena, on the other hand, has been in this situation before. The Bulldogs are playing in the division final for the 11th time, with their last appearance just two years ago — a 52-43 loss to Eisenhower in Division 2A.
“After the first game against Righetti, when we bounced back, I think that’s when things started changing for us,” said Zimmerman, who is playing with an injured hand. “I think the momentum started building as the season went on and Righetti was just a little icing on the cake. This 15-game winning streak is amazing, especially during my senior year, and I just want it to keep going. The expectations are high.
“I think we can deal with it and go get a victory.”