By Bill Paterson
We all know about the amazing atmosphere for Sierra Foothill League boys basketball.
But it would be tough to top tonight's electrifying mood at Del Campo High School, where the No. 16 Cougars took on Fair Oaks rival Bella Vista on Senior Night.
Del Campo has one of the area's bigger gyms, yet it still was standing room only with two large, boisterous rooting sections exchanging chants and cheers throughout in what was an fierce back-and-forth defensive slugfest.
Del Campo rallied to win 42-41 as senior wing Alex Powell scored the game's final five points - a three-pointer with 21.7 seconds to play, then a driving layup with 4.5 seconds.
When the buzzer sounded hundreds of Del Campo rooters, decked out in blue and gold, stormed the floor and mobbed the players.
"This was a great high school basketball atmosphere," said Del Campo coach Dave Nobis.
Added Bella Vista coach Dave Gonzalez: "I told our boys after the game, 'Look at how people act when they beat you.' It's something to beat Bella Vista in basketball, where it wasn't that way a few years ago. Our kids were awesome. Their kids were awesome. You couldn't ask for a better atmosphere."
Powell, the hero, led the way for Del Campo with 16 points. Chris Burnett added nine. K.J. Logue and Ahmad Smith each had 15 for Bella Vista.
There was no lack of intensity even though Bella Vista (15-12, 9-1) had already clinched the Capital Valley Conference title on Wednesday after beating Oakmont 53-41 while Del Campo (20-7, 8-2), the preseason favorite, was upset 49-45 by Christian Brothers to fall two games behind the Broncos with one to play.
"What's consistent is our effort," Nobis said. "It was unfortunate that we lost on Wednesday. The effort on Wednesday is the same effort you saw out here. It's just some shots didn't go in.
"The great thing about these guys is that they didn't hang their heads when it happened Wednesday."
They also didn't hang their heads when Bella Vista seemed to finally gain the upper hand. Smith scored on a base-line runner, then Tanner Wright added a layup for a 41-37 Bella Vista lead with 30 seconds to play.
"This is a great group, they love playing and competing," Nobis said. "They don't yell at each, they don't point fingers. They stay together. So I'm really happy for them to pull this off in front of this crowd.
"This crowd was pumped all week. The student body was talking about this game ever since we lost to them at BV."
With Gonzalez building a consistent winner at Bella Vista (89-50, four playoff appearances and three league titles in the last five years) and Del Campo (78-57 and four playoff appearances in the last five years) traditionally solid under Nobis, the rivalry keeps getting bigger.
"It's gotten crazy," Nobis said. "Dave has good teams year in, year out. We play each other tough whether we're up, whether we're down. His team has done a tremendous job this year. They're very talented. We didn't even blink when they had the tough preseason (6-11). We knew they were good, they were playing good teams. But we were beating good teams, too."
While Bella Vista has only one senior starter and two sophomores starting, Del Campo is a veteran group, with the team's top players - Powell, Burnett, Davit Saghatelyan, Tyler Smith and Mason Welch - all seniors.
Gonzalez said it was unfortunate that his surging Broncos - they had won nine consecutive league games - couldn't finish with a perfect league season as both teams head into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs that start on Wednesday.
"We're still league champions," Gonzalez said. "I told the kids they can't take that away from you. Fight back and be ready for Wednesday."
Nobis said the win is huge for his guys, who had yearned to win a league banner after a strong nonleague performance.
"At this point, it's about momentum," Nobis said. "...So this performance is going into their memory banks."
Both will enter a D-II field that, outside of defending D-II section champion Woodcreek, has a lot of parity.
"It will be a war," Nobis said. "So nothing will surprise me."