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Yuba College men's hoops finding comfort in underdog label
Four weeks ago, with discouraged faces, members of the Yuba College men's basketball team were asking "why?"
The 49ers, a California Community College state runner-up, a team that had won six consecutive Bay Valley Conference titles and earned the reputation of receiving a preseason ranking each year, was 4-5 heading into the Kris Kringle Tournament in Santa Rosa.
A start like that, is nearly unacceptable for this program.
"A few weeks ago, I started to think, maybe we over-scheduled this team," said Yuba College coach Doug Cornelius. "Coach (Ken Griffin) and I always want to play the toughest possible schedule we can, but we were probably in a little over our heads."
After Yuba finished last season as the state runner-up, and helped send off some of the top JUCO sophomores to four-year schools, including the state's Player of the Year in Spencer Butterfield, they were left with an empty cupboard.
"I don't think we were really thinking about next season," Cornelius said. "We kind of put all of our eggs into one basket."
The 49ers opened this season with two sophomores and 11 freshmen, yet continued to play their standard rigorous preseason schedule — it cost them, but it also set them up. The 49ers lost to the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 teams in the state, and one of those came by a single point to San Francisco (15-0).
A loss to American River (6-5) was later avenged and the only other defeat on the schedule came against Cosumnes River (6-8) in overtime.
"We probably played an overwhelming schedule for the amount of freshmen we had," Cornelius said. "With that said, we set ourselves up in the preseason to make league easier than it would be.
"With the practices and talks we have had lately, over this last week and a half, I think these guys have really turned a corner."
Is asking 11 freshmen and two sophomores to win a Bay Valley Conference title for the seventh consecutive time, too much?
Cornelius and Griffin are about to find out tonight when the 49ers (6-6) play host to Contra Costa (9-3).
A 2-4 overall start early in the season had some wondering. Since Dec. 6, the 49ers have won four out of their last six games, including Wednesday night's conference opener against Solano.
However, things will get tighter for the young 49ers. Not only do teams like Los Medanos, which has finished second to Yuba over the past few years, and an upstart Contra Costa team, sense weakness, but they're hungry.
"It's been awhile since that championship hasn't gone through Marysville, and other teams are favored, but I think we can win league," said Cornelius said. "If our guys played how they played on Wednesday, we will definitely be a factor."
On Wednesday, the 49ers opened BVC play with a 91-64 victory over Solano (5-7), thanks to the emergence of freshmen leaders Akachi Okugo and Chris Smith, and sophomores Achoki Moikobu and Yev Dyachenko.
They'll find out very quickly how they match up with the conference favorite.
"I kind of like not having a target on our back, and everyone looking at Contra Costa," Cornelius added.
Contra Costa brings seven players who average eight to 12 points per game, making it difficult to lock down on any one player.
"They are an extremely athletic team," Cornelius said about the Comets. "They have to be the front-runner (for the BVC title). They have earned the right to be the preseason favorite, but I wouldn't count us out."