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NEW LIFE ERA: Something special happening at section's smallest school
Girls team is 19-2 with just six players
With the Sac-Joaquin Section basketball brackets being released this week, it's likely the New Life girls team will end up garnering the No. 1 seed of the 14 teams in Division VI.
The Lady Crusaders already knocked off No. 4-ranked Sac Country Day 41-37 earlier this year, which means No. 2 Valley Christian and No. 3 Victory Christian are the biggest threats from stopping "the super six" from capturing the school's first-ever section title.
On the boys' side, the Crusaders are currently ranked No. 2 in Division VI, sitting just behind Faith Christian.
If all goes well, the community could be treated to a New Life-Faith Christian battle for a section title.
For at least a couple of games, the boys and girls teams will have the comfort of their home carpet underneath them once the playoffs begin.
— Bryan DeMain
The New Life High girls basketball team runs weave sprints back and forth until hands begin to hit the knees — the players are gassed.
"All right, quick water break," Ron Strickland barks. "And then let's get back out there."
The coach stands tall, stoic and intimidating, until he smiles. But he keeps his serious face on — cardio is pivotal for the Crusaders this season — there's only six of them.
"I have to be very careful with my timeouts," the coach said. "We rotate when we can, but sometimes I have to save my timeouts just to give them a breather."
With only 35 students enrolled in the high school — 200 overall (kindergarten-12th grade) — "the super six" are outplaying, outshooting and outhustling just about every small school from Sacramento to Redding. They boast a 19-2 overall record and sit at 8-0 in conference.
Leave it to the 2013 team with just six girls on it to bring home the 25-year-old program's first conference title banner to the gym the Crusaders call home.
"We had 11 players last season, but a lot of them were seniors," Strickland said. "I knew we would have a low turnout this season, but I didn't expect to have six. I even had to talk some of them into it."
• • •
Thirty minutes pass before the boys team begins lapping the court, as the girls continue to practice. The two groups share the multi-purpose, carpeted gymnasium that Strickland saw go up 27 years earlier.
The room is used for skits, plays, dinners, conferences. But after school during the winter, it's used for basketball — something that doesn't fall far from the tree at New Life.
Strickland is a keystone of sorts. He started the program in 1986. When he got to the high school, there was no physical education — difficult for him to understand — he was a stand out basketball player at Sutter High.
"My first year here, we had 32 games — all on the road," he said. "The following year, we built the gym."
It was around that time that Steve Smotherman entered the ninth grade.
Smotherman was a sharp-shooter who played for Strickland all four years. He averaged more than 20 points per game during his junior and senior seasons. He graduated in 1993 and went on to become a stand out guard at Yuba College, good enough to get offers from four-year universities.
Instead of moving to Idaho, an option on the table at the time, Smotherman quickly returned to his home and began his coaching career in 1996.
He helped out his former coach before enjoying a successful four-year run as head coach at East Nicolaus, where his teams combined for a 70-38 record.
He took a year off, but wanted to coach his son, Chase. So he does, in the same gym he once played in.
• • •
While the girls are resorted to drills, and without the luxury of five-on-five practices, the 10 boys, along with a couple of soon-to-be players, run a comfortable, active and polished five-on-five drill.
The passing is outstanding. It measures up to Division-I schools, the height does not.
Senior Tyler Treat stands above the rest, it's uncommon for a school the size of New Life to march out a 6-foot-4 athlete who dunks.
He's raw, but blocks anything under the hoop, senior guard Nick South runs the point with composure, Kobe Bancroft and Sullivan Guy are years beyond their sophomore grade level, while freshman Chase Smotherman seems to have a natural knack and vision for the game just like his father.
Freshman Thomas Marquette is a miniature version of Treat — athletic and quick for a guard — while senior Lovedeep Singh provides good passing and footwork for a big man underneath the hoop.
Senior Wyatt Johnson, junior Simeon Joiner and sophomore Jordan Smith provide unusual depth for a team this size. Collectively, they have amassed a 17-6 overall record, a 7-1 conference record and clinched the program's fourth Northern Pacific Athletic Conference title.
"Point-wise, it could be anyone on any given night," Smotherman said. "They have done everything I have asked them to do. I have been hard on them, but they are a good group of kids."
• • •
Today, the two teams will take the long bus ride up to the Napa Valley, where they will face off against Trinity Prep in their regular-season finales.
One bus can surely fit half of the school's varsity students — some of whom didn't even want to play.
But school spirit is alive and well at New Life Christian.
"I hate basketball," Elicia Villafranco said, laughing. "I just do it so that we can have a team."
It's an ironic statement coming from the team's senior leader. She averages nearly 20 points a game.
Her statement is echoed by senior Haley Moody, another huge contributor on the program's best team in history.
"It's just something I do," she said. "I do it to support the school."
So how do six players outlast schools with enrollment numbers six times their size?
"Miraculously, we have good players," Villafranco said. "I think being smaller there's an advantage. You already know what each of us is doing on the floor. I guess with only six of us, it's easy to figure out characteristics of each player."
Senior Rachel Whiteley actually prefers volleyball, like most of the girls, over basketball, but she recognizes this season is pretty unique.
"I think we all get along together just because we've all known each other our whole lives," she said. "I think some teams see us and think they're better because we only have six, then we beat them."
• • •
Two common traits shared by both teams are that leading scorers are everywhere — from Villafranco, Whiteley, Moody to sophomore Hannah Hruska and senior Kayleigh Ramirez. And while junior Brittnie Juetton is still learning the game, her contributions help keep the Lady Crusaders afloat.
The second shared theme that surfaces is praise for the coaches.
While strategies obviously differ, the passion for the game that the two men in charge evoke is picked up on by the players.
"He's a good coach," Whiteley said about Strickland. "We call him an old man, and he calls us goofy names, too, I guess, but we have fun."
"Sometimes he yells at us, but he's probably the only teacher who can and it won't bother you," Moody said. "I think because he just tells you how it is."
Recognizing the wisdom of a good coach also crosses over to the boys team.
"He really helped us be more offensive," Bancroft said. "I think last year we were more of a defensive team. He pushes us a lot so it's a good thing."
"Well, he definitely has helped me with my free-throw shooting methods," Treat said. "He's probably the best player on the court."
Just then, Smotherman fires off a few long-range shots from the corner to illustrate the fact that he still has the jumper from years ago.
Sportsmanship goes a long way at New Life Christian — while passing comes natural, every player avoids saying which player is the best on the floor.
"It's probably coach," Bancroft said. "We learn things when he's on the floor with us."