NCS Div. II: Newark Memorial boys finally break through

Sultan Siddiq was part of a Cougars bench that outscored Windsor 23-0 in the NCS final. (Jonathan Hawthorne/SportStars)

By CHACE BRYSON | Editor

 

It should’ve felt like a bigger deal — a bigger moment. 

After 32 minutes of making the Windsor High boys basketball team wish it could be anywhere else, Newark Memorial was about to be crowned the North Coast Section Division II champion following a 60-41 win in which the Cougars trailed just once. The players shared high-fives, big smiles, and enjoyed a short moment of exuberance with its student cheering section.

But for a victory that clinched just the program’s second section title, and the first in more than a decade, the celebration definitely qualified as subdued.

The win, and the championship, were expected. The Cougars were the top seed in the bracket and had been singled out as favorites early in the year after a dip in enrollment dropped them down from Division I. But to truly grasp why the moment should’ve felt bigger than it did, one needs a quick nine-year lesson on the Cougars. 

Since the 2002-03 season, Newark Memorial has reached the NCS semifinals in every year but one. Five of those years they reached the final — and lost each time. All five losses were by single-digit margins, three were six points or less and included an overtime loss.

During that nine year stretch, the Cougars won nine straight Mission Valley Athletic League titles, posted an overall record of 228-53, and even reached the 2010 Division I state championships. But they hung just one postseason banner, the 2010 Northern Regional championship.  

This 2011-12 team featuring six seniors — including four-year varsity standout Casey Norris, who was around for three near-miss years — literally shook a giant monkey off the program’s back. And yet, it basically took it all in stride.

In his 21st season as the coach of the Cougars, Craig Ashmore stood off to the side as his players mingled with fans and took pictures after the awards ceremony.

As he watched, he was asked how this team was different from some of his other extremely successful teams of the past decade.

“I think they’re just the same,” he said. “They’re resilient. They play hard. Selfless. Kids off the bench that are great players wait for these moments to shine. ... They’re just very similar to the teams of the last probably 15 years I’ve coached here.”

And maybe that’s it. 

Perhaps that consistent and prolonged success accomplished in a blue-collar, no-flash, get-the-job-done approach, was the reason for the lack of any fanfare following the victory — from the team or anybody else. In fact, there were probably several in attendance and throughout the Bay Area who would’ve been surprised to learn it was only the Cougars’ second NCS title. 

De La Salle coach Frank Allocco, who has coached against Ashmore’s teams for years — even working the opposing bench in three of the Cougars’ NCS finals losses — admitted surprise Newark’s championship drought had been so long. 

“I read in the paper it had been more than 10 years and had no idea,” said Allocco, whose De La Salle team wrapped up the Div. I NCS title the same night as Newark Memorial beat Windsor. “It’s great, though. Craig does a great job. Those kids really compete and have a level of consistency that I’ve always admired. We’re really happy for him. The sign of a really good program is consistency, and they certainly have had that over the years.” 

Newark Memorial beat Windsor the same way it beat its previous 19 opponents, with relentless pressure defense and strong contributions from a very deep bench. 

Windsor, in the midst of the program’s most successful season, entered the game with a record of 28-5. But the Jaguars appeared flustered from the outset against the Cougars. Windsor managed just three points in the first quarter, and was nine minutes into the game before 6-foot-9 standout center Tanner Giddings scored its first field goal. 

But as much as Newark Memorial had its defense working, the offense didn’t find its mojo until its bench players got involved. Jalen Rogers, Sultan Siddiq and Matthew Thomas all made key plays upon entering the game in the first quarter. Rogers had nine points and four rebounds in the first half. Siddiq offered up four points, three rebounds, and a blocked shot. 

In all, the bench had 15 of the team’s 28 first-half points. It finished the game by outscoring the Windsor reserves 23-0.

“Jalen was the X-factor tonight,” said point guard Joey Frenchwood, who led the Cougars starters with 12 points, five assists and four steals. “Yusef (Farouqi) has been the sixth man all year and been knocking down shots all the time. No matter who comes off the bench, we know they’re going to produce.”

It’s a luxury that Ashmore even feels a little guilty about at times. 

“It’s almost like we get another notch up when those guys come in,” Ashmore said of his reserves. “We’re definitely 9-10 deep, and there are times when I feel bad looking down at the 13th guy and realize he’s pretty good, too.”

The Cougars earned the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the CIF Northern Regional tournament that began on March 7. The most likely team to be standing in their way of another trip to the state final is top-seed Archbishop Mitty-San Jose — the defending Div. II state champions. 

Mitty just happens to be a team Newark has already played this season, an ugly 60-40 loss in mid-December that helped put the Cougars on their current path of success.

“I thought early on, Mitty sort of smashed us in the mouth,” Ashmore said. “And we learned that you can be excited, but you better come to play.”

And even though the Cougars’ celebration was tame by most section-champion standards, Ashmore assured that it meant something. 

“The one negative I hate about this team, is that they’re never happy,” he said. “I’m glad they’re celebrating. We beat Taft-Woodland Hills (at the Torrey Pines tournament), and then got in the van, drove nine hours and they looked like mummies. I’m glad they’re excited for each other. They do work hard and they deserved this.”

Cougars coach Craig Ashmore at the MLK Classic on Jan. 17. (Bob Larson/SportStars)

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