Located on the periphery — literally and figuratively — of the Bay Area high school basketball scene, Half Moon Bay has historically played the role of the scrappy underdog who can't quite hang with the big boys.
That's not the case with this season's Cougars.
Led by a dominant frontcourt and a coach with a winning history, the Half Moon Bay boys' basketball team is off to a 20-2 start, eyeing an undefeated run though the Peninsula Athletic League and dreaming of ending the season with a state title.
Coach Rich Forslund, who led Riordan to a state title in 2002, has instilled the same gritty defensive philosophy in Half Moon Bay. The Cougars are giving up only 38.8 points per game on the season and have held their last three opponents under 30, including Friday's 86-21 win over Oceana.
“There's no question that our key to success this season has been our defensive effort,” said Forslund, who joined the Cougars three seasons ago. “But it's not just about scheme. We have the right pieces here to be very successful.”
Six-foot-6 senior Rico Nuno and 6-7 junior Case DuFrane anchor Half Moon Bay in the middle, while senior shooting guard Corey Cilia leads the perimeter attack. Cilia, whom Forslund calls the team's best offensive weapon, recently returned to the lineup after missing over four weeks with an ankle injury.
“We missed his offensive presence, but in the long run, I think his absence will help us since other guys were forced to step up,” Forslund said. “But there's no question that having Corey back makes us a much more difficult team to guard.”
In their last three victories, all against PAL foes, the Cougars won by a staggering average of 56 points.
“We're playing good basketball at the right time of the season,” Forslund said.
He said the Cougars are aiming to qualify for the rugged Open Division of the Central Coast Section tournament, a spot that would guarantee them a position in the Northern California Division IV playoffs to follow. Forslund said he likes his team's chances of playing for a state title.
“There are no great Salesian teams in the field, where it wouldn't matter if I had Coach K and John Wooden on my coaching staff,” Forslund said. “It's a pretty open scene this year.”
For now, Forslund said the team is intent on staying focused on league play, where the possibility of an undefeated season is legitimate. The Cougars finish up PAL play this week with road games against Westmoor on Wednesday and Terra Nova on Friday.
“Obviously, going through the league undefeated would be a huge accomplishment for us,” Forslund said. “That was just one of our goals heading into the season. We keep our players focused by telling them, 'It's not who we play, but how we're playing.'”
The idea of an undefeated league season and state championship would have seemed unthinkable just a few seasons ago, when Half Moon Bay struggled to compete. In the 2006-07 season, the Cougars went 1-21.
“There is a definitely a buzz around the campus and the community because of the success of this team,” Forslund said. “The students are having fun, the parents are having fun, the administrators are having fun. Everyone is really enjoying this.”