John DePonte sizes up his basketball team and sees the makings of a championship contender.
His veteran players agree.
With three core three-year starters at the helm for their calm coach DePonte, Pleasant Grove High School aims to make this a season to remember, and if Wednesday night offered even a glimpse of that hope, the Eagles should expect a run well into March. With ball handlers, shooters, runners and rebounders, the Bee-ranked Eagles throttled Franklin 68-45 in a nonleague contest in Elk Grove.
Guards Malik Thames and Matt Hayes lead one of the Sac-Joaquin Section's top backcourts, and fellow three-year varsity senior man Cole Norquist is among the region's top shooters.
Thames had 22 points on an array of twisting drives, runners and jumpers, and he played hawking defense for the 11-3 Eagles, whose only local loss was to Sacramento. Hayes, a virtual blur clone at 6-foot, had 15, and Norquist, a 6-3, had 11.
"That's what we're hoping - cash in on this experience," said DePonte, whose club went 24-7 a year ago in finishing a competitive third in the Delta River League behind Sheldon and Jesuit, teams that met in the Section Division I and Northern California large-school title games. "Our Big 3 of Hayes, Colfax and Thames has a lot of experience. If the guys around them can step up...."
Then sky's the limit.
Marquese Chriss, a 6-6 junior post, had 10 points. He got the game off to a roaring start with a dunk off the opening tip. DePonte said Chriss is capable of this sort of effort and needs to be consistent with his energy.
Thomas Fitzgerald is another 6-6 Eagles post expected to contribute inside efforts, and senior guard James Watson and junior Dre Terrell - the Eagles' quarterback in football - provide terrific guard depth. Eagles senior foward Matt Smrekar was a contributor last season who has emerged as a reliable starter this winter. He had four points and also provides rebounding and screeching-halt screens.
Thames is the younger brother of San Diego State starting guard Xavier Thames. The brothers talk daily - school, basketball, life. One wants to outdo the other in a good way.
"We've got a group of guys this year, and we know we can be pretty good," Malik Thames said. "A lot of people look at (Bee No. 1) Sheldon as the (Delta River League) champs, and we have a chip on our shoulder. If we win league, we wouldn't be surprised. We can be pretty good."
Thames said he's grown as a player and young man since his sophomore season when he was learning on the fly.
"I've become a better leader, and I know I have to get my teammates involved and I have to set an example on how I play pressure defense, get steals," Thames said. "We all have to do this together."
Pleasant Grove this early season has lost to state powers Centennial of Corona 71-65 and West Ranch of Valencia 66-60 in high-profile tournaments, gaining experience and reaffirming that it can compete with anyone.
Meanwhile, four-time defending Delta Valley Conference champion Franklin (6-8) has as young a team as seventh-year coach Jesse Formaker has fielded. And typical of the Wildcats, they competed even though outmatched here. Benson Osayande, a 6-6 junior, had 12 points and John Moscoso, a 5-9 junior guard, had nine.
Senior captain Victor Rushin is the one player who provides experience off last season's 22-6 team. The Wildcats went 249-8 in 2009 and 26-6 in 2010.
Franklin and Pleasant Grove will each compete in Saturday's Father Kelly Tribute at Jesuit. Franklin takes on San Leandro and Pleasant Grove faces Newark Memorial.
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