Zach Johnson, seen here in his sophomore season, is back for Lick-Wilmerding, which should be a force in 2018-19. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Zach Johnson, seen here in his sophomore season, is back for Lick-Wilmerding, which should be a force in 2018-19. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Lick-Wilmerding basketball no longer goes under the radar

Lick-Wilmerding isn’t surprising anyone this year.

The Tigers are coming off back-to-back 25-win seasons, including a remarkable playoff run. Eliot Smith’s squad won the BCL West Tournament in March by upsetting rival University after losing two regular-season meetings. The real stunner came in the NCS semifinals, in which the Tigers trailed eventual state champion St. Patrick-St. Vincent by 20 points in the third quarter before pulling out a miraculous 71-68 overtime victory.

Lick-Wilmerding’s run ended in a rematch with SPSV in the Northern California semifinals, but the Tigers have picked up where they left off, starting the season 12-1 despite injuries to two of their top three players, Royce Fong and Zachary Johnson.

Walter Lum was expected to be the star this year, and while Fong and Johnson were injured, the 5’9 senior guard had to contribute more than his ordinary share. It was no issue for the shooter, who nearly topped Riordan all by himself in the Tigers’ only loss. He sank nine 3-pointers and scored 34 points in a 67-62 defeat.

“I think it’s important for Riordan kids to walk by our school down on Ocean Avenue and say, ‘Hey, they’ve got a good team too,’” said Smith.

The tight performance showed that Lick-Wilmerding is ready for the big stage. Last year’s upset win in Vallejo was just a preview of the tremendous promise that this team carries. While meetings with teams like Half Moon Bay and St. Joseph Notre Dame meant blowout losses in prior years, this year’s group has what it takes to battle with top competition.

“When we first moved up to Division IV a few years ago, we got it handed to us a few times, but it was great exposure for our guys,” said Smith.

Four-year starters have been a trademark of the program. Micah Elan, who graduated in 2015, was a senior on the first team to reach the state tournament, and Lum and Fong are both four-year starters. Johnson, a junior, is in his third year as a starter under Smith.

With Fong and Johnson healthy, Lick-Wilmerding won the Head-Royce Tournament, including a signature win in the championship game against Branson, a gritty 42-39 overtime win.

The win capped off three days that demonstrated the Tigers’ versatility. They beat Hoopa Valley 78-64 in the opening round, eclipsing their total scoring from the entire Branson game in the first half.

In Tuesday’s win over Balboa, Smith’s squad continued to showcase its ability to win in different ways. Less than a mile from his 34-point outburst against Riordan, Lum took just three shots in an effort to focus on distributing the ball to give his team a balanced attack.

As good as the Tigers may be, their competition will be unforgiving. Tonight’s rematch with a Jefferson team that Lick-Wilmerding beat by three in the Lowell Cardinal Classic will be exponentially tougher with the debut of Marquez Costiniano, who transferred to Jefferson from crosstown rival Westmoor. League play means three top City opponents. Stuart Hall is led by junior guard Miles Amos, star 6’4 guard Spencer Spivy has University off to a 13-1 start and Urban is 11-6 with a suffocating defense that has allowed just five opponents to break 50 points. The NCS Division IV field is also loaded, headlined by St. Joe’s, SPSV and 12-0 Piedmont.

Lick-Wilmerding will be one of the most talented and exciting to teams to watch in San Francisco this year. Smith’s up-tempo style, Lum’s shooting brilliance, Fong’s all-around game and Johnson’s versatility in the post practically guarantee it.

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.

Bay Counties Leagueeliot smithLick-Wilmerding High Schoollick-wilmerding tigersPrep Sportsroyce fongwalter lumzachary johnson

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