For all of the success the University Red Devils have had over the last decade, this wasn’t supposed to be a year in which they made it to a state championship game.
Last year’s 31-4 team graduated three starters, including Spencer Spivy, and all three of those players stood at 6-foot-4. An undersized and inexperienced team was supposed to finish somewhere in the middle of the Bay Counties League West and bow out early in the state tournament, if they could even get that far. They essentially entered the season with no returning post players and were looking at a severe disadvantage on the inside in almost every game.
And yet, here they are, making their tenth straight appearance in the state tournament and fourth state championship appearance in program history. Having survived three straight nail-biter games — including a pair that went into double overtime — they’ll be playing on Friday at 4 p.m. in the CIF Division III Championship against La Jolla Country Day on the floor of the Golden 1 Arena in Sacramento.
It’s a journey that the Red Devils have made by adapting at every juncture. After exacting revenge on Stuart Hall, erasing three tight losses with a decisive NCS Championship victory, they’ve faced a gamut of different teams in the state tournament, defeating defensive-minded foes in the first two rounds by taking down Piedmont Hills and Mountain View.
University’s last two wins came against run-and-gun teams in Palo Cedro-Foothill and Monterey, with Tuesday’s NorCal championship coming against a Toreadores team that can shoot with the best of them. With 32 minutes of phenomenal defense, the Red Devils allowed just 21 points over the first three quarters and held on down the stretch.
That’s the sort of year it’s been for University, with a roster learning on the fly and meeting the demands of all sorts of opponents instead of just trying to jack up threes against larger foes.
Senior Max Fried is at the core of that, having gone from a perimeter weapon to a force in the post. He can still shoot from the outside, but as one of the larger bodies on an undersized team, he’s become a skilled rebounder. Against Monterey, he pulled down 20 to go with his 14 points.
“We’ve long believed in versatility and positionless basketball,” head coach Randy Bessolo said. “We were doing it before the Warriors made it popular.”
Fried’s challenge on Friday will be against a Torreys team that has all sorts of size, including 6-foot-10 senior Jayson Taylor, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds in LJCD’s SoCal championship victory on Tuesday night, a 71-43 road thrashing of Crescenta Valley. Taylor complements star guard Ryan Langborg, a Princeton commit who broke the 2,000-point mark for his career during that game and finished with a game-high 20.
At 22-13, the Torreys had the eighth seed in the Southern California Division III field, but that record is misleading. They dealt with injuries early in the year and played an excellent schedule, finishing third in a loaded Coastal League and falling to Cathedral Catholic in a San Diego Section semifinal. As good as Langborg and Taylor are, they won’t be alone. LJCD starts two freshmen, James and John Hapgood, and have an experienced point guard in senior Ray Lu.
“They’ll be tough, but it’s possible,” Bessolo said. “It’s better than playing Sierra Canyon.”
Sierra Canyon was the opponent when the Devils last reached a state championship game, which they lost 80-55 back in 2015. Since then, the Trailblazers have played in the Open Division for four consecutive years, and they’ll be playing for the Open championship on Saturday night to cap off the weekend. The game in 2015 was for the Division V title, where University would belong under the old enrollment division structure. With the competitive equity format that’s been in place over the last two years, the Red Devils have been punching above their weight class in Division III.
That loss to Sierra Canyon was University’s fourth state championship appearance and first under Bessolo, having also reached championship games in 1991, 1995 and 2002. The program is 0-4 in those games, but considering what they’ve been able to do this year, there’s no better time to make history than the present.
If they’re going to win, they’ll need the supporting cast to back up Fried and senior Charley Moore. As Fried and Moore have transitioned to playing in the paint, others have taken the reins at guard. Christian Heng handles the point, Reese Johnson has become a stellar defender and Jack McFadden has been an all-around weapon. Combine that with Charlie Kennedy’s clutch play off the bench and a pair of sophomores who have adapted to the rigors of varsity basketball in Raki Cabrera-Scarlata and Ren Zanze, and University will be taking the court on Friday with a group that’s been able to take on new roles. If a few things go right, it could very well lead to the program’s first-ever state championship.
IN A NUTSHELL
- Mascot: Red Devils
- Opened: 1975
- Enrollment: 410
- Notable Alumni: Tyler Walker (MLB)
- Section: CIF North Coast
- League: Bay Counties League West Division
- Record: 27-9
- Best Wins: Mission (81-64), Monterey (44-41), Stuart Hall (63-46)
- Best Losses: Riordan (67-52), St. Mary’s-Albany (67-62), Stuart Hall (three times)
- Players to Watch: Max Fried, Jack McFadden, Charley Moore
La Jolla Country Day:
- Mascot: Torreys
- Opened: 1926 (upper school in 1960)
- Enrollment: 1,200
- Notable Alumni: Kelsey Plum (WNBA), Rashaan Salaam (Heisman Trophy winner), Candice Wiggins (WNBA)
- Section: CIF San Diego
- League: Coastal League
- Record: 22-13
- Best Wins: Crescenta Valley (71-43), Fairmont Prep (73-62), Parker (59-57)
- Best Losses: Damien, Orange Lutheran, Torrey Pines
- Players to Watch: Ryan Langborg, Ray Lu, Jayson Taylor