High school basketball primer: Contenders, dark horses and more as regular season enters home stretch

The high school basketball playoffs are just around the corner.

Two weeks of sectionals beginning in mid-February, followed by two weeks of regionals, with the monthlong rollercoaster ride of celebrations and heartache ending with the state finals at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 8-9.

By now, it’s clear which teams are contenders for top prizes and which ones will need a few breaks to make deep postseason runs.

Remember: In this era of competitive equity, some times luck of the draw plays just as big a role as clutch shots. Should they advance beyond the sectionals, some teams we suspect will quietly hope they land anywhere but in the Open Division.

Does anyone want to play the Archbishop Mitty girls in the NorCal Open?

With the North Coast Section seeding meeting set for Feb. 11 (yes, Super Bowl Sunday) and the Central Coast Section seeding meeting scheduled for Feb. 14 (yes, Valentine’s Day), it’s a perfect time to peek ahead to postseason possibilities and candidates for all-Bay Area News Group honors.

HEAVYWEIGHTS

Boys

De La Salle’s Alec Blair dunks the ball against Dublin on Jan. 19, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

SALESIAN

Record: 22-1

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: Talented roster that plays hard, shares the ball and doesn’t beat itself. Has a chance to become the second NorCal team and first since Bishop O’Dowd in 2015 to win the Open Division state title.

DE LA SALLE

Record: 20-3

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: The Spartans have reached the past two NCS Open Division finals, losing heartbreakers to Campolindo in 2022 and Dougherty Valley last season. Winning this year will be just as challenging, even with a lineup that features junior star Alec Blair.

ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN

Record: 14-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: Few teams can match the athleticism that the San Francisco powerhouse brings to the court. When on their game, the Crusaders have results such as two last week, wins over league rival Archbishop Mitty and SoCal powerhouse Centennial-Corona.

ARCHBISHOP MITTY

Record: 13-5

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: Even a second-place finish behind Riordan in the West Catholic Athletic League and an appearance in the CCS Open final should get the perennial power Monarchs back into the NorCal Open.

GRANADA

Record: 19-2

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Coach Quaran Johnson has the Matadors back in contention for more postseason hardware despite 7-footer Andrew McKeever and wing Tyler Harris graduating from last season’s NorCal Division I championship team. Big bounce-back win on Thursday over San Ramon Valley after losing at DLS on Tuesday.

SAN RAMON VALLEY

Record: 19-4

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: SRV’s 15-game winning streak was snapped on Thursday as the Wolves lost a thriller at Granada 60-58. Barring an unexpected slide, the Danville school should be one of the six teams in the NCS Open and at least a top seed in the NorCal D-I regional.

Girls

Mitty teammates McKenna Woliczko, left, and Morgan Cheli react to a play on the court during a game against Bishop O’Dowd on Jan. 15, 2024 (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

ARCHBISHOP MITTY

Record: 19-0

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: The nation’s No. 1-ranked team is led by McDonald’s All-American Morgan Cheli and five-star sophomore McKenna Woliczko. Also has future college players Belle Bramer and Elana Weisman. State Open Division runner-up the past two seasons could clear final hurdle in March. If it does, should go down as best team in Bay Area history.

SACRED HEART CATHEDRAL

Record: 14-2

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: The Fightin’ Irish are the second-best team in the CCS and West Catholic Athletic League. Have beaten St. Francis, Riordan in league play. Senior guard Reza Po can score on anyone, and SHC has a big win over Cardinal Newman.

SAN RAMON VALLEY

Record: 21-1

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: The Danville school has wins over Pinewood, Sacred Heart Cathedral and Oakland Tech. A strong finish to the season and a good showing in the NCS playoffs should punch the Wolves’ ticket to the NorCal Open, whether they like it or not.

CARONDELET

Record: 21-2

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Open

Our thoughts: Is once again one of the Bay Area’s elite teams after a slight down season in 2022-23. Has won eight consecutive games, and is in position to win the East Bay Athletic League with a victory over San Ramon Valley on Jan. 30.

PIEDMONT

Record: 14-3

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Piedmont isn’t quite as talented as last year’s 27-1 team that earned the No. 1 seed in NorCal Open, but the Highlanders still have high-scoring guard Natalia Martinez, who can carry Piedmont even against good competition.

ACALANES

Record: 18-4

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Coach Margaret Gartner has the kind of offensive firepower that can add more highlights to her impressive resume. Guards KK Lacanlale and Dulci Vail lead an attack that can outscore anyone in the NCS.

PACKING A PUNCH

Boys

Dublin’s Miles Pollard waves goodbye to the Monte Vista student section as the clock winds down to zero during a game on Jan. 12, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

DUBLIN

Record: 18-5

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open or Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: The Gaels had an inspired effort in a tough loss at home to DLS. They were more flat in a loss at home to SRV a few days later. Still, they have a road win at Monte Vista and should be in the conversation for the NCS’s top playoff bracket.

SERRA

Record: 14-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Longtime coach Chuck Rapp has a proven track record of postseason success (see last year’s run to the CCS Open final). This season’s team is led by the likes of Ryan Pettis and an all-name guy for the ages, Mikey Ballout.

MONTE VISTA

Record: 19-4

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open or Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Nick Jones doesn’t have a superstar on his roster, but the longtime coach has a bunch of guys who play hard. Even if the Mustangs aren’t selected for the NCS Open, which seems more likely after a loss Thursday at Dougherty Valley, their resume tells us they won’t be a pushover in the postseason.

ST. IGNATIUS

Record: 13-5

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: The Wildcats are a steady bunch that have notable wins over Dublin, Sacred Heart Prep and University-San Francisco. Losses to Riordan (twice) and Mitty and a road heartbreaker at rival Serra in OT shouldn’t derail expectations.

SACRED HEART PREP

Record: 14-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: The Gators made it to the quarterfinals of the NorCal D-I regional last season and could find themselves back in that same division if they stay on their current trajectory. A win Saturday over Menlo-Atherton will help their case for the CCS Open.

BISHOP O’DOWD

Record: 15-6

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II, if it advances

Our thoughts: This isn’t the O’Dowd team that won the Open Division state title in 2015. But longtime coach Lou Richie is doing a masterful job with this version of the Dragons. If placed in an appropriate division, they could be make some postseason noise.

Girls

Oakland Tech forward Jhai Johnson (5) grabs a rebound against Edge Academy-Canada at Dublin High on Dec. 29, 2023 (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

PINEWOOD

Record: 11-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Pinewood has reached the CCS Open final nine seasons in a row. Longtime coach Doc Scheppler has another team loaded with 3-point shooters that could stretch the number to 10. Close losses to likely NorCal Open teams St. Mary’s-Stockton and SRV show Pinewood can compete at a high level.

BISHOP O’DOWD

Record: 13-5

Section playoffs projection: NCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Malik McCord’s team is probably a year away from being Open material. But there’s no reason a roster led by sophomores Devin Cosgriff and Lizzy Quinteros can’t compete with Piedmont for a league title and a high seed in NCS Division I.

OAKLAND TECH

Record: 5-16

Section playoffs projection: Oakland Section

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I

Our thoughts: Forfeited non-league victories will not affect Tech’s postseason chances, as the Bulldogs are still overwhelming favorites to win the Oakland Section. Tech isn’t as good as last year’s team, which won D-I state, but has the size to make a run.

LOS GATOS

Record: 17-2

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Arguably the best public school program in the CCS, a claim supported by victories over talented Evergreen Valley and Branham. Has yet to lose in SCVAL De Anza Division play.

CALIFORNIA

Record: 19-2

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Aside from a rout at the hands of San Ramon Valley, California has handled business against almost every other opponent. The Grizzles could make a deep run in NorCal if it survives the section playoffs.

ST. FRANCIS

Record: 14-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: The Lancers have taken the jump from average to very good. Has wins against Oakland Tech and St. Ignatius, and still has league rematches with SI, Riordan and SHC on the docket.

DARK HORSES

Boys

Ygnacio Valley guard Antonio Kellogg Jr. goes up for a block against Salesian at Albany High School on Dec. 22, 2023. (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

LIBERTY

Record: 18-3

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II, if it advances

Our thoughts: Coach Jon Heinz recently won his 250th game while leading the Lions to the top of the Bay Valley Athletic League standings. They could be a tough out once the postseason rolls around.

CAMPOLINDO

Record: 18-4

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division I or II, if it advances

Our thoughts: Teams in NCS Divisions I, II and III have to reach the section final to guarantee a spot in NorCals. Given Campo’s playoff pedigree, don’t count out coach Steven Dyer’s Cougars from getting at least that far.

YGNACIO VALLEY

Record: 17-5

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division IV

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: For those who thought last season’s postseason run was an aberration, YV is proving them wrong behind star player Antonio Kellogg Jr. The Wolves are not only sizzling but they’re beating good teams by wide margins.

BRANHAM

Record: 17-1

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: First-year coach Jason Billie, a former Milpitas High star and West Valley College assistant, has taken the Bruins to the top of their league standings and a nearly flawless record. But will they get the call for the CCS Open?

HALF MOON BAY

Record: 14-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Despite losing their top player from last season’s NorCal Division IV championship team, Jaeden Hutchins, to Prolific Prep, the Cougars have made it through the first half of league play undefeated. Big league game Friday at Menlo-Atherton.

LOS GATOS

Record: 15-4

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Wildcats were cruising along until stumbling this week against Mountain View. Still sit atop their league standings and will be among the public schools in the conversation for a CCS Open bid.

Girls

Evergreen Valley’s Ryka Aprameyan celebrates a three-point basket against Carlmont in a CCS playoff game at Piedmont Hills High on Feb. 23, 2023.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

BRANHAM

Record: 16-2

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Having a big-time rim-protector can make a huge difference, and 6-foot-5 shot-blocker Quinn Godfrey has been dominant as a senior. Should punch its ticket to the CCS Open playoffs with a victory against Evergreen Valley on Feb. 8.

ST. IGNATIUS

Record: 11-6

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Has been dueling with Archbishop Riordan for the title of the second-best team in San Francisco. Still has games against St. Francis and Riordan on the WCAL schedule, which could affect CCS seeding.

ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN

Record: 12-5

Section playoffs projection: CCS Open

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Riordan’s first season in the WCAL has been a success, with the Crusaders capable of beating anyone in the league not named Mitty. Has the talent to reach the title game in the section’s top division.

EVERGREEN VALLEY

Record: 15-5

Section playoffs projection: CCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Won the CCS Division I title last season. Seems to be peaking at the right time after winning eight in a row, with top scorer Ryka Aprameyan back from an injury that caused her to miss several weeks.

HERITAGE

Record: 12-7

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: Still a solid team even after graduating McDonald’s All-American Amanda Muse. Currently engaged in a battle with Liberty and Antioch for first place in the Bay Valley Athletic League.

SALESIAN

Record: 12-8

Section playoffs projection: NCS Division I

State playoffs projection: NorCal Division II

Our thoughts: NorCal Open Division finalists started this season 3-7, but has won nine of its last 10. Isn’t as talented as past Salesian teams, but counting out coach Steven Pezzola’s girls in a lower playoff bracket would be foolish.

WHO MAKES NCS, CCS OPEN

Los Gatos’ Scotty Brennan takes a shot against visiting Milpitas on Jan. 16, 2024. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

Our best guess … (subject to change)

Boys

NCS (six): Salesian, De La Salle, Branson, Granada, San Ramon Valley, Dublin/Monte Vista

CCS (eight): Riordan, Mitty, Serra, St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart Prep, Branham/Half Moon Bay/Los Gatos (maybe Menlo-Atherton or Santa Cruz)

Girls

NCS (six): Cardinal Newman, San Ramon Valley, Carondelet, Acalanes, Piedmont, Bishop O’Dowd

CCS (eight): Mitty, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Pinewood, Los Gatos, Branham, St. Ignatius, St. Francis, Riordan

WATCH LIST: PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

Piedmont’s Natalia Martinez is one of the Bay Area’s top players. (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

Boys

(alphabetical order)

Alec Blair, De La Salle

Aaron Hunkin-Claytor, Salesian

Luke Isaak, San Ramon Valley

Gavin Ripp, Archbishop Mitty

Zion Sensley, Archbishop Riordan

Girls

(alphabetical order)

Sofia Bowes, San Ramon Valley

Morgan Cheli, Archbishop Mitty

Natalia Martinez, Piedmont

Reza Po, Sacred Heart Cathedral

McKenna Woliczko, Archbishop Mitty

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KEY DATES

NCS seeding meeting: Feb. 11

NCS playoffs: Feb. 13-24

CCS seeding meeting: Feb. 14

CCS playoffs: Feb. 16-24

CIF NorCal regionals: Feb. 27-March 5

CIF state finals at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento: March 8-9

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