The 2019-2020 season was a historic one for the Christopher High boys basketball team, which advanced to a Central Coast Section championship game and won a game in the CIF NorCal playoffs before falling in the regional semifinals.
On paper, incredibly enough, this year’s team is better. With four starters returning and Gilroy-transfer E.J. Yufenyuy in the mix, the Cougars have ample reason to think they’ll take the next step and win the program’s first-ever CCS title (all signs point to the CCS running a postseason basketball tournament in June).
“If they’re going to have it, we’ll be back because we have a bad taste in our mouths after losing in the championship last year,” coach Tim Von Urff said. “We’re hungry for sure, and it’s great if the seniors can get one more opportunity to run it again.”
Christopher, which enters Friday’s game against Oak Grove at 2-0, returns point guard Owen McCarry, shooting guard Rickey Becker, and forwards Duncan Ellis and Tobenna Ezeokeke. The 6-foot-4 Ellis and 6-3 Ezeokeke are wing players who possess length and can wreak havoc defensively, which is the team’s strength.
Becker has the ability to score in bunches on a moment’s notice, either from beyond the arc or off dribble-drive penetration. McCarry makes sound decisions at the point and has a nice mid-range jumper. And Yufenyuy—while still raw—has the potential to be an absolute load down low. The junior post has a long wingspan, disrupts shots in the lane and likes to play with his back to the basket.
“E.J. is a beast athlete and no one is as athletic as him,” McCarry said. “Whenever he wants, he can pretty much rise up over anyone. If he finishes it or not, it’s really up to him. He can only stop himself.”
Said Von Urff: “E.J. is really raw right now but a great athlete. He puts his head down and gets to work, so we’re excited to have him in the program.”
Ezeokeke and McCarry combined for 25 points in the team’s 68-22 win over Gilroy on Wednesday. Ezeokeke dialed it up from long range three times, and Becker hit two 3-pointers. Yufenyuy had 11 points as 10 different players got in the scoring column. Drew Gumin scored 17 of Gilroy’s 22 points and has been a stalwart in his fourth year on the varsity. Owen Gallegos is the only returning Gilroy player who saw significant time on the team last season.
“All the credit goes to Drew and his family,” Mustangs coach Joe Te said. “Not only is he a great all-around kid, but he’s a leader out on the court. Without him we would really be struggling. He’s stepped up big time.”
Because Gilroy High is serving as a Covid vaccination site, the team has been relegated to practicing at Gilroy Prep School three nights a week. Te said even though the team can’t get a full-court practice or scrimmage going at the facility because of its smaller dimensions, he sees plenty of positives.
“They’re glad to be out there having a season,” he said. “I think this whole experience has been about getting them out of the house and improving their mindset and wellness. We’re having fun.”
As are the Cougars. Von Urff was impressed with his players’ work ethic, noting they didn’t just come back a year older—they returned a more seasoned group.
“A lot of these kids have grown an inch or two and have another year of being familiar with our system,” he said. “The older guys are doing a phenomenal job teaching the younger guys, so it’s really helping them make a seamless transition.”
Christopher also has up-and-coming talents in sophomores Chigozie Okeke and 6-5 Chris Naulls. Okeke had seven points in the win over Gilroy, Naulls finished with five and Alfonso Gamboa—another key reserve wing player—has returned and gives the team quality depth.
“We have a lot of good pieces here so we’re excited to build something special for sure,” Von Urff said. “We’ve worked to establish a certain culture, and so far it’s shown.”
McCarry said the team is stronger because the returning reserve players from last year’s team have improved and know their roles. In addition, a couple of individuals from last year’s junior varsity team have emerged as reliable players. Just as important, the team gained invaluable experience with last year’s deep playoff run.
“We know what it’s like now to play important games,” McCarry said. “Myself and Duncan worked out together all off-season and were preparing for something like this. We feel pretty confident that we’re ready to win CCS this year.”
Only the perennial heavyweight programs roll out solid teams year after year, and that’s what Von Urff hopes to accomplish at Christopher.
“Man, I’m so lucky,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of third-year kids (with varsity experience), so we’re really lucky with that for sure. It’s just a great group and we’re carrying over that momentum and chemistry from last year. That has put us in a really good situation now even though we’ve only been in the gym for two to three weeks.”