Sonoma State’s Justin Herold has averaged 13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 25.6 minutes while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. (Photo by CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)
By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Scoring baskets beats flipping burgers and even better for Justin Herold is contributing to a turnaround that should push Sonoma State back into the postseason.
Playing his first games in three years, the former All-Empire player from Maria Carrillo High also appreciates another opportunity at a college education.
“It was difficult. I really found myself in a lot of ways,” Herold said before a recent practice. “I needed to realize what I really cared about.”
After completing a year at Sonoma State and a fall working with the Seawolves team, Herold has proven himself in the classroom and on the court.
“He’s been everything a coach wants and more,” said Sonoma State coach Pat Fuscaldo.
Earning his way into the starting lineup after becoming eligible under NCAA transfer rules, Herold has been important to Sonoma State’s surge up the California Collegiate Athletic Association standings.
Winning eight of their past ten games, the Seawolves should make the conference playoffs. A couple of wins could produce the men’s first NCAA Division II tournament berth in six seasons.
“We’re excited. We have confidence that we can win some games,” said senior point guard Steven Pratt. “He’s definitely been a big contributor in our improvement.”
Long has been the journey back for Herold.
The last meaningful games for Herold were in 2009. Coming off a junior campaign when he shared Empire Player of the Year honors with Lucas Devenny, from Piner, Herold was dismissed from the Maria Carrillo team near the end of his final season of high school ball.
Still waiting for Herold was a scholarship to play basketball for Cal Poly Pomona. But Herold never suited up for the Broncos. Fuscaldo said it wasn’t an academic or legal issue.
Back in Sonoma County, Herold took some classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and then Sonoma State in 2010. Herold lived on his own and paid the bills working at a Rohnert Park burger joint and for a catering company.
“I bounced around. It was really just me growing up,” Herold said.
A second chance at playing college basketball followed a call to Fuscaldo. But before Herold could play for Sonoma State, university officials required Herold to achieve certain milestones under a written agreement.
“I basically had to earn my way back,” Herold said.
Achieving all university officials set out, Herold needed to find his niche with the team. Proving himself on the court initially was a challenge because Herold only played in area leagues and in Santa Rosa Junior College summer gym sessions since returning home.
“He’s learning how to play all over and there’s a transition period into the next level,” Fuscaldo said.
Practicing with the Seawolves beginning last fall, Herold worked to improve on defense and learned to be a better team player.
“I cherish the fact that I’m on a team,” Herold said. “I take it a lot more seriously. I need to work hard and I know what I have to do to be successful.”
Soon he showed the athletic ability that would shape the Seawolves into a very good squad. “In my years here we’ve never had a player like him,” said Pratt, a four-year starter. “He gives us a threat on the court that can rebound the ball and he’s instant offense.”
Herold sat out the season’s first run of games until he was eligible. Sonoma State went 2-5, including losses in its first three conference games.
Injuries depleted the Seawolves roster. So thin was Sonoma State that Pratt moved to forward and several other players were out of position.
Sonoma State’s surge began when Herold and another transfer, 7-foot center Andy Shannon, became eligible to play. Fuscaldo’s player rotation expanded and the team found a pace and level of trust that led to winning.
“I knew when we got guys and learned how to play with them it would turn the season around,” Pratt said. “Everyone is giving up what they can to make the team better.”
Coming off the bench the first handful of games back, Herold was aggressive at both ends, playing with energy to contribute across the floor. He earned a starting spot and continues to improve.
“Justin’s role is to go get the ball. He’s got a great motor,” Fuscaldo said. “He’s doing a little bit of everything for us.”
Playing center, Herold gives up height to opposing big men, yet more than makes up for it with quickness and determination.
“I focus on the defensive end and the points will come,” Herold said.
Herold’s averages are 13 points and 6 rebounds a game, both tied for tops on the team, and he gets more than a blocked shot per contest. He has a pair of double-doubles, including 26 points and 10 rebounds against Cal State Los Angeles on Thursday.
“For him to play as well as he is, it’s kind of scary what it’s going to be like. He’s really not touched on his basketball skills yet,” Fuscaldo said.
With both Herold and the Seawolves finding ways to improve, the season’s stretch run is promising.
Despite losing on Thursday, Sonoma State remains in a seven-team logjam at the top of the CCAA standings. The final games are crucial to postseason positioning. The top four teams get home games to open the conference playoffs.
With a memorable first season, Herold wants to help Sonoma State remain competitive in campaigns to come.
More important, though, is staying on course to graduate. With a year of coursework done, Herold is considering majors, with communications and anthropology topping the choices.
“The basketball is the easy part,” he said. “It’s the work ethic that I’ve learned. I love basketball, but my main focus is to graduate from college.”
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or email@example.com.
Sonoma State, freshman, forward/center
Notable: Prepped at Maria Carrillo … averaging 13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks in 25.6 minutes per game … has played in 14 games this season, including starts in the past nine … shooting 53 percent (77-145) from the field and 63 percent (34-54) from the free-throw line.
Sonoma State has won nine of its past 11 games and is alone in fifth place in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA). Sonoma State has clinched a conference tournament playoff berth.