By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Riding highs and lows in a challenging season has a young Santa Rosa Junior College men’s basketball squad seeking enough wins to get back into the state playoffs.
Santa Rosa did not have a winning record until two months in, got hot with a seven-game winning streak, and now is working to regain momentum.
“We started out slow. We have a lot of new guys, but we’ve done a good job of righting the ship and getting better as the season’s gone on,” said leading scorer Alec Kobre, from Montgomery High.
Santa Rosa returned one starter and four others from last season’s conference championship team, mixing in a handful of newcomers to provide solid depth.
Finding enough scoring and improving defensively on the run and around the basket, Santa Rosa has developed a winning formula. Santa Rosa is among the state’s top 3-point shooting teams and leads its conference in rebounding.
“A lot of guys have learned what they can and can’t do,” said Corey Hammell, a first-year player out of Cardinal Newman. “We’re a pretty good shooting team. Defensively we’ve showed signs of getting better.”
The campaign began with perhaps the toughest nonleague schedule in the 14 seasons coach Craig McMillan has led the Santa Rosa program. Half of those contests matched the Bear Cubs with teams ranked in the state’s top 10.
“Playing the tough competition helps us prepare for a tough league race, but it would have been nice to have gotten a few more wins,” McMillan said. “We played pretty well against the tough competition, but we lost a lot of close games.”
Then the Bear Cubs bounced back. Santa Rosa took three straight to win its own tournament and followed with four more victories.
But the Big 8 Conference is again one of the most rugged in the California Community College Athletic Association, as Santa Rosa was reminded in recent games.
“The conference is a little bit deeper this year. You can get beat if you have an off night,” Kobre said.
What the Bear Cubs do well is shoot from deep and score with the best teams. Santa Rosa makes 43 percent of its 3-pointers and pours in 72 points a game.
Depth is a strength. Santa Rosa has seven players scoring five or more a game, and five who grab four-plus rebounds per contest.
“We’ve been able to shoot well from outside. We have a lot of guys who set really good screens and we’re able to get open off little cuts and backdoors and stuff,” Kobre said. “We have guys who rebound well and are able to get to the basket.”
Leading the scoring are Kobre and Matthew Hayes, a first-year guard from the Elk Grove area, who combine for nearly 30 points a game. At point guard is Davone Oliver, a versatile freshman from Oakland who averages nine points, three assists and four rebounds a game and plays strong defense.
A handful of players rotate in the low post led by Hammel with nine points and eight rebounds a game. Returning starter Luke Cocheran, from Loomis, and sophomore Darin Grayer, who played at Roseland University Prep, help anchor Santa Rosa at both ends of the court.
Brian Johnson, from Maria Carrillo, is a sure-handed passer and defender who rebounds well.
Coming on strong has been Hammell, shaking off a slow start much as the team has overall.
“I just continued to work hard,” Hammell said. “I’m finding my role. I try to let the game come to me more at this level.”
An improved defensive effort has contributed mightily to Santa Rosa’s turnaround. Limiting opponents in transition points and protecting the post are even more critical on the road.
“We need all five guys to play defense and crash the boards,” Hammell said. “We need to be consistent.”
Entering the second half of Big 8 play, the Bear Cubs remain confident they can win a third consecutive championship. Finish near the top and Santa Rosa at least could get a home playoff game and aim for another string of playoff wins.
“Whoever improves the most and wins the close games will have a chance to be successful,” McMillan said. “If we can play well in league, it will really help our seeding and, therefore, improve chances of making another playoff run.”
Recent history shows Santa Rosa is a tough out in the CCCAA playoffs. Santa Rosa is the only team to reach the elite eight each of the past three seasons.
Players in the program the past two or three years appreciate the work needed to win playoff games. Their new teammates are buying in with practices reflecting such determination to compete at a high level.
“Winning conference is our first goal. We’ve got to come out with some wins,” Kobre said. “We have to find a way to get some energy, intensity.”