Early success has Mission boys’ basketball eyeing ‘big things’

Archbishop Riordan’s annual preseason tournament always offers a great collection of regional high school teams picked from private and public leagues of the Bay Area.

Mission High School has been a fixture in the Crusader Classic for years, but the Bears — unable to match the size and depth of the tourney’s traditional powerhouses — have never claimed victory in the eight-team matchup.

That changed this year, and the team’s early success means something special could be brewing for Mission in 2016-17.

Over the course of three days, Mission dispatched three top-level opponents, including Menlo-Atherton, a Division I school coming off a 28-win season, and San Ramon Valley-Danville, another big time squad just two years removed from a state title. They did this while their best player — Niamey Harris — was sidelined with a shoulder injury sustained during football season.

“This team is made up of all program guys — kids who have been with us since their freshmen year,” said Mission coach Arnold Zelaya. “They know this system and they play with each other so well. That’s what makes us so excited for this season.”

Mission has been led so far by the senior backcourt combo of Jayden Foston and Jamion Wright, who combine to average more than 30 points per game. The team’s defense has been stifling this year as the undersized Bears are giving up just 44 points a contest in the early goings of the season. Foston and Wright have wreaked havoc on the perimeter, with the guards combining to average eight steals per game.

“We’re always going to be small, and have to use our speed and quickness to disrupt teams,” said Zelaya. “But this year’s team takes a lot less risks defensively than some of our past teams. They’re very disciplined and incredibly defensive-minded.”

Over the past eight years, Zelaya has built Mission into the most consistent winner of the Academic Athletic Association, the public school league in San Francisco. Mission is the two-time defending league champ, and has won six of the past nine conference titles.

Zelaya has helped instill that success in large part by putting his teams through a rigorous non-conference schedule, as evidenced by the team’s regular presence in elite preseason tournaments like the Crusaders Classic. He’s established Mission as the team to beat in the AAA — one that can enter the 2016-17 year as the league favorite, despite losing eight seniors from a team that won 27 games last season.

“It’s good for the chemistry to get these kids playing tough games early in the year,” said Zelaya, whose team is currently competing in the three-day Fukushima Invitational hosted by Independence High School in San Jose. “And these kids on our team now feel like they’re being underestimated. This is the first varsity playing experience for a lot of them, and they want to prove themselves.”

When Harris returns — expected to happen at the end of this month — Mission will boast one of the strongest teams in program history. The team’s depth and drive has Zelaya eyeing a deep run into the postseason. In 2015, Mission advanced to the semifinals of the NorCal Division III playoffs, and last year the Bears lost a second round Division IV NorCal game to Palma.

“We feel like we could have won a couple of more playoff games last year,” said Zelaya. “With this year’s team, we feel like can make a lot of noise. We built this program on tough kids, with the idea that they would work harder when things got difficult. That hasn’t always been the case, but this year, we’re seeing those kinds of results, and that’s got us thinking about big things.”

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