Christopher, Gilroy hoops have lofty goals

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Tobenna Ezeokeke will be a key player for the Cougars this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Christopher High and Gilroy High boys basketball teams both have goals of winning a division championship this season—the Cougars in the Pacific Coast League’s Mission Division and the Mustangs in the Cypress Division. 

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” said Tim Von Urff, who is in his second season as the Christopher coach. “We have the pieces here to do it. We have the size, the athleticism, the talent, and the kids are in it. We have bigger goals. Last year we got to the third round of CCS, and this year we’re looking to take it home. We have the bigger vision in hand for sure.”

And so does Gilroy. Mike Suarez, who is in his fourth season as the Gilroy coach, doesn’t just want to stop with a league championship—he wants the program to aspire to reach the level of the premier teams in the CCS and beyond. That starts with having a championship mindset. 

“We’re really getting them to understand that you don’t have to be a champion first to have a champion’s mindset,” he said. “You look at how a championship team practices—their consistency, effort and attitude—those are the things we can attain and have control over.”

When the two teams met last Friday at Gilroy High, it was no contest. Christopher ran roughshod over the Mustangs to the tune of a 69-23 win. Gilroy was never in this one, as Christopher harassed the hosts into mistakes time and again through relentless defense. Every time a Gilroy player touched the ball, he would immediately have multiple defenders in his face. 

The speed and length the Cougars brought was too much for Gilroy to handle. Led by Duncan Ellis, Owen McCarry, Tobenna Ezeokeke Rickey Becker, Chris Naulls, Paul Mann and Dante Sokol, the Cougars did something incredible: they held standout Gilroy point guard Drew Gumin scoreless while also limiting Gilroy center Jaylin Williams to seven points. Gumin entered the contest averaging 15 points per game, and Williams has already had a couple of 20-plus point games this season. Against Christopher, however, the duo was held in check. 

“It (pressuring every ball handler) was something we had in our back pocket,” Von Urff said. “They have a really strong point guard, so we wanted to keep him high (away from the basket), keep him away from getting in the paint and making plays. And their big boy Jaylin is a load down there. He’s hard for anybody to guard. We just tried to keep the ball away from him and the game plan honestly could not have gone any better.”

Christopher also shot a proficient 50 percent from 3-point range, finishing 9-of-18 from beyond the arc. Ezeokeke and Becker led the way with 15 points each, with Ezeokeke draining three 3-pointers and Becker two. McCarry had a terrific all-around performance with 12 points, 10 assists and five steals, and freshman Naulls finished with 10 points. 

Christopher won easily despite not having 6-foot-9 center Ethan Fleener in the lineup. Fleener is averaging five blocks per game while altering and forcing teams into countless other tough shots, a testament to his height and defensive instincts. Von Urff said Fleener has been playing well while also noting that nothing or no one stands in the way of the team. 

“It’s not about one individual on our team,” Von Urff said. “It’s about us and that is what we’ve been preaching since summer time. … We’ve got a good group of kids. They listen well, play hard and that is the best group to coach. When they’re all bought into the system and what we’re trying to do, it makes it easier to do my job.”

Christopher has tremendous balance and players who are maturing with each game. Becker has come on strong as a sophomore, proving to be a reliable 3-point threat and heady player. He routinely beat Gilroy down the court for fast-break layups. The 6-3, 175-pound Ellis, who was an all-PCAL Mission Division first team selection last season, is long, athletic and a force on both ends of the floor. 

“Early in the season he took a leadership role of having to score the ball,” Von Urff said. “But he’s been our vocal leader on and off the court. He does a lot of the dirty work on the defensive end, is a great facilitator and a very high character kid who is a 4.0 (GPA) student.”

McCarry didn’t receive a lot of playing time last year, but is having a breakout junior season. At the beginning of the summer season, McCarry went to Von Urff and asked to be the point guard this season. 

“It was something brand new to Owen, but each and everyday that kid shows up to play and compete,” Von Urff said. “He goes full on and is always looking to do what is best for the team. He’s averaging 5 ½ assists and 3 ½ steals per game right now, and his defense is phenomenal.”

Ezeokeke, a 6-3, 180-pound sophomore wing, and Mann, a 6-4, 160-pound senior wing, both have the ability to knock down 3-point shots on a moment’s notice. Von Urff had great things to say about both players. 

“With Tobenna, last year we just started to scratch the surface on how good he will eventually be,” Von Urff said. “He’s playing tough defense, is probably the best athlete on the team and is an above the rim finisher. He keeps the kids going at practice. And Paul is our sharpshooter and has a lot of athleticism. He’s capable of doing a lot of things, but you’ll find him camping out at the 3-point line. If you see him and you don’t get a hand up, you better get ready to watch that ball go in the net for sure.”

Von Urff said the 6-4 Naulls possesses tremendous athleticism, a huge vertical leap and big-time potential. Sokol, a 6-1, 173-pound senior, does a lot of the things that don’t show up in the stat sheet.

“Dante busts his butt every single day,” Von Urff said. “He dives for loose balls, is the best rebounder on the team and brings so much fire and passion to the game.”

Gilroy, meanwhile, has already done something it never did last season—beat a team from an A division. That happened on Dec. 13 when the Mustangs topped Sobrato, 55-52, in the Bob Hagen Tournament semifinals. Gilroy has finished as the runner-up in both of the tournaments it has entered this season, and Suarez said being in those type of games will play a key role in preparing the Mustangs for the league season. 

In Gumin and Williams—who attended high school in Texas last year—Gilroy has a top-tier point guard and center combo. Gumin has the capability to score from the outside, get to the basket off dribble penetration and make pinpoint passes to set up his teammates for scores. 

Williams, a 6-6 senior, possesses nimble feet, strong post moves and has a nice touch from 10 feet in. In one game earlier this season, Williams went off for 30 points and 20 rebounds, a supreme performance. As long as Gumin and Williams are healthy, Gilroy should improve upon its 6-4 finish in the Cypress Division last season. 

“You don’t see a talent like Jaylin come around too often,” Suarez said. “He is a threat in the paint, he can handle the ball, and he likes to shoot a little bit. But we really need him doing his work on the block, because he’s a big presence for us. He’s got a great attitude and is a really coachable young man. He’s been an amazing person for us and has really helped our program gain confidence. He’s put us in position to compete in tournaments, which is big for us. And Drew of course has been a captain since he was a freshman. The expectations keep going up, so the challenge for him will be greater because teams know about him and will double team him. I’ve got to put him in a better position to make sure he’s not just the one that is responsible for handling the ball, and when he gives it up, we can get it back to him and allow him to work and make plays.”

Suarez knows what he’s going to get from senior forward Josh Filice-Hollar in every game, and that’s all-out effort. Even though Gilroy lost to Christopher in a blowout, it was of no fault of Filice-Hollar, who competed for every loose ball, grabbed rebounds with authority and stayed in fifth gear from start to finish. 

“He’s what I like to call our enforcer,” Suarez said. “He plays very physical and has been the Defensive Player of the year for the last two years. He puts everything out there and leaves it all out on the court. That mentality is what we really need to be reciprocated from the whole team so it’s infectious. We’re getting everyone to understand it’s going to take that type of effort from everybody for us to reach our goals.”

Despite having only three returning players off last year’s team in Gumin, Filice-Hollar and Mateo Martinez, the Mustangs have a chance to be a superior unit from a year ago with the addition of Williams and an influx of newcomers who contribute in different ways. Sophomores Ellison Yufenyuy and Owen Gallegos, junior Jose Hinojosa and senior Sebastian Nunez have made an impact. 

“Jose was injured all of last year, provides a lot of leadership and is similar to Josh in that he is willing to sacrifice his body to get the job done,” Suarez said. 

Gilroy has gone from four wins in the 2016-2017 season to seven wins the following year to 11 victories last season. This season the Mustangs hope to continue that upward trajectory. Suarez has been impressed with Martinez’s improvement from a year ago. 

“This year he’s cracked our starting lineup, so we’re really depending on him to help Drew out with handling the basketball and being a leader,” Suarez said.

The Mustangs participated in basketball camps at Stanford and Cal State East Bay over the summer, and Suarez’s intent was to give his players a glimpse of what basketball looks like at the next level. 

“What we found out was these aren’t teams just getting together to play summer basketball,” he said. “These are programs being run to be prepared for competitions. We’re really trying to level up our program.”

As is Christopher, which is on the ascent after last year’s terrific run to the CCS Division II playoff quarterfinals. The Cougars, who were the No. 11 seed, whipped Gilroy in the opening round before rolling to a 60-44 win over No. 6 seed Wilcox. Christopher then gave No. 3 Mountain View all it could handle before succumbing, 44-36. Mountain View went on to win the championship, which let the Cougars know they weren’t that far away from contending for a section title. 

“When we operate as a team, I don’t know if there are a lot of teams around here that can beat us,” Von Urff said. “But at the same time, if we don’t work as a team and if players think it’s about them, anything (upset losses) can happen. Give credit to the boys so far because they’re playing with a lot of hunger, and it carries over into what we’re trying to accomplish.”