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Senior leadership has Jefferson boys basketball team aiming for new heights

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Rodney Lawrence has more than 1,000 career points for the Jefferson Grizzlies. (Courtesy Keanu Tafeamalii)

A trio of three-year varsity players, an exciting group of transfers and a hard-nosed mentality has the Jefferson High School boys’ basketball team on the verge of reaching levels that the program hasn’t seen in 30 years.

Last Tuesday’s 40-34 win over Half Moon Bay may have brought new attention to the Grizzlies, but their successes have been building over time.

“Every year, we’ve been climbing further and further up the ladder,” said head coach John Falabella, a 1995 Jefferson graduate.

The senior core picked up its 50th win over a three-year stretch on Wednesday and is in the process of cementing the legacy of the most accomplished team the school has seen since the 1988 state champions.

That group is comprised of point guard Daniel Benjamin, center Rodney Lawrence and forward J.P. Johnson, who are all three-year letter winners. Benjamin and Lawrence started during that stretch and Johnson made his name by providing energy off the bench for two years and entering the starting lineup as a senior.

“When he was younger, we referred to J.P. as ‘Lightning’ because he was so scrappy and so quick,” said Falabella.

As sophomores, the group reached the PAL Tournament Quarterfinals and CCS Second Round. Last year, they reached the PAL and CCS Semifinals. If that progression is to continue, the Grizzlies would find themselves in the state tournament for the first time since 1988.

A huge step toward that goal came when they beat Half Moon Bay, PAL North champions for the last four years. Jefferson became just the second team to win a league game against the Cougars since 2014. Over the past two years, the Grizzlies went 20-0 against the rest of the league but lost all four meetings with HMB in lopsided fashion.

“Our goal is to win league every year, and every time, Half Moon Bay has stood in the way,” said Falabella.

Lawrence was a huge part of that win. Though he scored just nine points, he held Cougar center Ethan Menzies to 12 after Menzies scored 22 in the teams’ first meeting, a 54-36 Half Moon Bay win.

Barring any major upsets, the rivals are now on pace to split the league title.

While Lawrence, who broke 1,000 career points earlier in the month, has been a big part of that success, so has a scrappy group of guards, led by Benjamin, who also starred on the football field as a wide receiver and defensive back.

He’s been aided by the introduction of three transfers who came over from neighboring Westmoor: Marquez Costiniano, J.J. Cruz and Luis Villareal. A number of factors motivated the transfer, including Costiniano and Cruz’s desire to play football, which Westmoor doesn’t have.

All three have fit in from the moment they arrived, and the results have been evident since they became eligible at the start of January. In their first game, they pushed Lick-Wilmerding to overtime.

While Costiniano and Cruz start, Villareal has helped set the tone with his willingness to hit the deck for loose balls.

“It’s a really unified group,” said Falabella of his roster.

One of the biggest rallying points on the team is Jovi Diaz. In his freshman year, Diaz suffered a stroke on the court during a JV game. He was cleared to resume athletic activities as a junior and has been a part of the team since then despite having just partial movement in one arm. In a December win over Marshall, Diaz — now a senior — scored seven points, his first since his freshman year.

The cheers for Diaz have been among the loudest this year in a lively atmosphere at Jefferson’s gym, one of the few remaining pit-style gyms in the Bay Area. With seats 10 feet above the court and a low roof, Grizzly home games are a retro experience and a perfect complement to the team’s old-fashioned, hard-nosed style.

Their final two home games of the regular season are February 9 against Westmoor and February 13 versus Terra Nova.

Prep Focus writer Ethan Kassel covers high school sports throughout the Bay Area. If you have a story tip, game to watch or player to track, email him at ethankassel@gmail.com.

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