After easily outdistancing AIMS College Prep of Oakland on Feb. 28, it was a tough road trip for the varsity Lady Cougars basketball team on March 2.
The girls defeated their opening round opponent, 61-36, on the home court in front of a loud, supportive crowd in the first round of the NorCal Division 5 playoffs.
“We got granted the eight seed and hosted the nine seed AIMS College Prep of Oakland. AIMS was fresh off their Section Championship loss to powerhouse Oakland Tech of the Oakland Section,” noted Escalon head coach Joseph Dalpogetti.
They were able to gather a little information prior to game time, the coach added, including the need to focus on a six-foot-three sophomore averaging 22 points a game.
“We knew they didn’t like pressure, but I wasn’t sure if we could provide the pressure Oakland Tech was able to,” Dalpogetti said. “So our game plan was to pressure the ball for 85 feet so their leading scorer’s height wouldn’t be a factor and if they did get the ball in the half court to try to push her away from the rim.”
The strategy definitely worked, and the Lady Cougars also played a tremendous game in front of the home fans in their first ever NorCals appearance.
“We led 15-6 after one, and all six of their points came from chucking it inside over our heads to their center,” Dalpogetti said. “In the second our press looked the best it had all year. We outscored them 26-6 in the quarter to take a commanding 41-12 lead into the half.”
Coming out of the locker room, the team kept the press on early in the third, just to ensure AIMS didn’t go on a run to close the scoring gap.
“Then we pulled it off and just picked up at half court for the remainder of the game,” Dalpogetti said. “We led 52-31 after three and the final was 61-36. All 10 players played in both halves and we had a great crowd. It was a fun night of basketball and a bit of history was made.”
Former longtime teacher, coach and athletic director Mark Loureiro offered Dalpogetti – now with a couple of decades of coaching under his belt – some statistics.
“He was my AD for over half my coaching career and witnessed many of the struggling seasons,” Dalpogetti said. “He said he checked the archive and this was the first NorCal playoff berth for girls basketball and it was the first NorCal win in school history for basketball, either boys or girls.”
Junior Macie Vickers turned in another outstanding performance with 24 points; Analise Silveira notched 10 on the night and Yanely Gomez had nine.
With the win, Escalon advanced to the second round of D5 action and the victory sent them on a long road trip, heading to face off against Fall River High School in McArthur in Shasta County, roughly four-and-a-half hours away. The Fall River team came in with a 25-2 record and ultimately held off Escalon by a 56-43 final.
With time built in for stops to eat, get gas and possibly having to chain up, depending on weather conditions, Dalpogetti said the team left Escalon at 9 a.m. Thursday and arrived at Fall River High School at 4:40 p.m., ahead of a 6 p.m. tip off.
“Our pattern for this playoff run has been to arrive everywhere about an hour and 10 minutes prior to tip. Head to the bench and lace up, shoot for 20, head back to the locker room for 20, and then warm up for 20,” explained Dalpogetti. “We had plenty of time to follow our routine, and I hate to make excuses, but the way we came out showed how the long day did throw us off a little.”
Fall River came out and jumped on the visitors, forcing Dalpogetti to use two of his timeouts in the first quarter to get the troops regrouped.
“We were down 19-8 after the first quarter and at times I thought we were heading toward a blowout loss,” he admitted.
But when a parent voice from stands indicated they hadn’t “come all this way to get blown out” the team made adjustments and went zone from that point on.
“A 2-3 zone, to boot, something we haven’t run much at all this year,” said the coach. “I had zone in the back of my mind from watching film because I knew they were fast and athletic, but so are we.”
Dalpogetti said Fall River also played faster than they appeared on film, but he didn’t want to tinker too much with the formula that has been working for his team.
“At this point in the season you are who you are so we wanted to play our style too, but ultimately zone was the best option,” he said. “We ended up cutting it to five by half and trailed 29-24.”
Ultimately getting it to a 29-28 deficit to open the third and later trailing just 36-34, the Lady Cougars were nonetheless frustrated in their efforts to tie it up or take the lead. They trailed by five, 39-34, going into the final quarter.
“We could never get the scoreboard to flip and take the lead and I think that played a big factor,” Dalpogetti summarized. “We would have it to a one possession game with chances to take the lead and we just couldn’t score when we needed to and they’d go up by five or six.”
With a minute-and-a-half to go, the Lady Cougars were all in foul trouble and Fall River used that to their advantage, hitting the free throws at a high percentage. They hit 9-of-13 in the final frame and 17-of-25 for the game while Escalon was just 11-of-19 for the contest.
Vickers was again the leading scorer with 17, Silveira was in double figures with 10 and Kelsey Webster added seven.
“Macie had the best run I’ve ever had a player go on,” Dalpogetti said of the junior getting even hotter for the playoffs. “In the postseason, in order, she went for 27, 19, 21, 24 and 17 (points) for a 21.6 average.”
The Lady Cougars ended the campaign with a 20-10 overall record as a team and made memories to last a lifetime.
“After the game their coach and I spoke for a few minutes before we left,” Dalpogetti noted. “I have to say these were the kindest, most hospitable people I have encountered in my coaching career … he said we were the best team they have seen all year outside of their two losses.”
Fall River went on to defeat Lincoln of San Francisco in the semifinals on March 4 and was scheduled to host number three seed Bret Harte in the regional finals on Tuesday, March 7, looking to advance to the March 10 state championship game.
“It’s one of the games I think we all wish we could have back,” Dalpogetti said of his squad taking the quarterfinal NorCals loss. “A couple fouls against us that didn’t have to be fouls. Maybe a neutral site. They have a four-and-a-half-hour drive … and maybe we are heading up to Angels Camp for a NorCal title shot.”
But the girls took the loss and saw seniors Kelsey Webster and Analise Silveira complete outstanding careers on the hardwood for Escalon, both on the varsity as sophomores during the shortened COVID season and coming back strong for their junior and senior campaigns.
“In their two (full) varsity seasons, won a TVL title for the first time since 1999, made (Section) semis for the first time since 1980, first NorCal berth ever, first NorCal win, ever, back-to-back 20-plus win seasons, and three playoff wins in one season,” Dalpogetti pointed out. “I would have to say they could very easily be considered the most successful class in EHS girls basketball history.”