The East Bay Athletic League boys’ and girls’ basketball seasons begin Jan. 5 and the usual suspects figure to be making noise when it comes to shooting for a league championship.
Teams like De La Salle, Carondelet, Monte Vista, San Ramon Valley, Dublin, Dougherty Valley and Amador Valley all figure to see their names bandied about when it comes to championship talk in either the boys’ or girls’ races.
But there is one more school that belongs in the conversation in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions -- Granada.
When it is all said and done, don’t be surprised if the two Granada teams are right in the mix.
Heading into the EBAL season, the Granada girls are 8-0, with the boys at 8-2.
Talk of winning a title when it comes to basketball and Granada has not been a conversation for some time.
“I have a lot of Granada history on my staff,” said boys’ coach Quaran Johnson. “They make sure the kids are well aware of the history, like no league title in 25 years.”
On the girls’ side, coach Kris Birco is seeing the little things each time the Mats take the court that could make the difference this season.
“There are the tough games we would have lost a couple of years ago that we are now winning,” said Birco.
Both Johnson and Birco needed to instill a new culture into their respective programs when they took control.
It wasn’t easy.
“My first season we went 3-23,” said Birco who is in his fifth year running the program. “It was tough getting them to buy into the culture -– I didn’t think I was going to make it through the first season.”
For Johnson, it was about reaching back to his playing days and drawing from the experiences.
“I came from winning cultures,” said Johnson, who played at Friend’s Central High in Philly, followed by Ohlone Community College, then at Metropolitan State University, Denver. “It was a strong high school program, then we won the league title at Ohlone, and at Metro, I played for coaches that held people accountable.”
For Birco it has been a gradual ascension, going 7-19 in his second year, then starting 11-0 to open year three.
“We had one of our best players shatter her knee when we got to 11-0,” said Birco. “We still ended 16-10 and went to NCS.”
Last spring the team went 8-1 in their last nine games of the abbreviated spring season. Notice was being served.
“It took five years to get to this point,” said Birco. “They have bought into what I am selling.”
Using an intensive practice structure, Birco has the Mats players playing full court, aggressive basketball from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
“We have seen some teams that are gassed at the end and our girls could go another game,” said Birco.
This season the Mats have gone unbeaten through non-league with a blend of senior leadership and youthful exuberance to overcome a potential devastating off-season injury to a key player.
Maliyah Rivera -– the starting point guard for the Mats as a sophomore –- got injured during this past summer and will miss all this season.
That left the Mats staring into a void with their playmaker on the shelf. In came sophomore Jasmine Branda. Branda is a solid player that figured to be a small forward for Granada before the injury to Rivera.
“She’s really stepped up,” said Birco of Branda. “I told her we needed her to play point guard. She said she had never done that, but she has stepped up and has been playing great.”
Madison Braswell is the heart and soul of the team.
“She is just solid,” said Birco of Braswell. “She is a double-double player –- we feed off of her.”
Sonia Fletcher is another senior leader that occupies the role of defensive stopper. Alexa Pletschette is a junior that has been the Mats knock-down shooter.
It’s been a solid start to what should be a successful season. Granted the EBAL is a grind, but Birco keeps his team forward focused.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” said Birco. “We have to embrace the fact we are playing teams like Carondelet. I tell the girls that we are going to be seeing a lot of those players on TV over the next 4-5 years.”
On the boys’ side, Johnson had similar growing pains initially, but by his second season running the show, the team was going strong.
“I had been doing well at JVs, but then I got the varsity job and we just got killed. I learned a lot and just had to get back on the horse.”
The 2019-2020 season was a revelation as Granada went 24-7 overall. Everything was in place for a big 2020-21 season.
“We had finally broken through and established the culture we wanted to and then COVID hit,” said Johnson.
The team still went 9-3 overall and 5-1 in the shortened spring season, but a lot of the flow was disrupted.
“This year has been tougher as we are having to re-establish ourselves,” said Johnson.
The team had been fighting the injury bug and has yet to play a game with everyone in uniform. Saturday, Jan. 1 was to be the first time for the Mats to suite up the entire team, but that took a hit when a pair of players tested positive for COVID.
That put the Jan. 1 game on the shelf, as well as the EBAL opener set for Jan. 5 when Granada was set to face 12-0 Dougherty Valley.
If everything goes as planned, Granada will open EBAL play on Friday, Jan. 7, at home against Monte Vista.
“It’s been tough, but the attitude of the kids has been great,” said Johnson.
The fact Johnson has a talented lot makes things a bit easier. The student body of Granada has been bitten by the excitement surrounding the team.
“We pass the eye test –- we look the part,” said Johnson. “We had two preseason games at home, and we had really good crowds. The students are excited to come out and watch the games.”
It is easy to see why as the students see the team walking around campus.
For starters, there is 16-year-old junior, Andrew McKeever, a 7-footer cruising the Granada campus.
“He is young, and we haven’t had as much time as we would have liked to work with him,” said Johnson. “But he is getting better all the time. He is learning what he can and can’t do.”
Kevin Gad -– a 6-foot-6-inch senior –- is the Mats best player.
“(Kevin) has been a stud this season,” said Johnson of Gad. “He has gotten some D-I looks and a lot of D-II interest.”
Senior John Mitchell, another 6-6 player, stirs the Granada pot.
“He is a freak athlete that plays with reckless abandon,” said Johnson of Mitchell. “He is like our Draymond Green –- he gets us going.”
Johnson also pointed out seniors Kam Johnson and Noah Boedecker, as well as sophomores Navaughn Long and Marco Wilde as key players.
Entering EBAL Johnson knows there is much work to be done, but thinks his team is ready.
“I really enjoy these guys are naïve in to how good the EBAL can be,” said Johnson. “They go in really confident and raw. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We know you must respect every team in the EBAL. But this looks like a team that will ascend as the season goes on and those are the best teams to coach.”