There are words that will define this generation of children who were raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, impacted by Covid and chased from their homes by fire: Strong. Resilient. Tested. Driven.
Those words also fit the 2021 San Lorenzo Valley High School boys’ basketball team, as it overcame challenges both on the court and off, and rose to the top of their game as winners of the Santa Cruz County Athletic League (SCCAL) title.
Head Coach Russell Gross said that winning the banner—the program’s first since 2007—was the cherry on top for his team.
“It was pretty special. We went 13 (wins) and two (losses) in (the) regular season, and 12-1 in the SCCAL “B” League,” he said. “We got in 15 games—imagine that with Covid.”
Gross says they had to jump through hoops just to get on the court, including twice-weekly Covid tests for players and coaches.
“We all tested negative every week, so our team was able to stay together. I was pretty proud of them, and we just had a fantastic season,” he said.
With only five seniors on the team, Gross says the loss of one player, who tore his ACL shortly before the first game, only made the others work harder.
“That player became the spiritual leader for our team, and he never missed a practice or a game,” he said.
The team was also missing two players who opted to play baseball instead of basketball. Covid restrictions meant that only seniors could play two sports, Gross says.
“The other kids had to choose between the diamond or the court, and two of them opted for baseball,” the coach said.
One of those players, sophomore Damian Aguilar, was a starting pitcher for the Cougars, and brought home a mid-season win against Watsonville in May with a complete game shutout.
Gross started freshman Kai Groleau as a point guard, and the youngster rewarded him by averaging 24 points per game. Returning player Asher Dolinger averaged 19 points per game, and Mikey Kelly stood strong as a defensive guard.
Freshman Cade Peterson found himself starting during the last part of the season, and Gross says that blend of talent and enthusiasm brought it all home.
“The team is young, but the future’s really bright,” he said.
That’s especially true if you look at Gross’ past few years at the helm of this team.
“My first year, we went 1-23; last year was 5-19, so I think we finally turned the corner,” he added.
Gross says part of that success comes from the incoming freshmen players.
“All through middle school, they never lost a game. They’re a very talented group; I’m blessed with two strong classes of players, and we mixed in the rest to make the team what it is,” he said.
Gross said the rewards for the kids are palpable.
“They played really hard, and after beating Soquel in preseason, the kids knew they could beat anyone in the county,” he said.
The mix of the two divisions meant the Cougars didn’t have the chance to meet up with rival Santa Cruz High School, but Gross is proud of what the team accomplished.
“Pacific Collegiate had a really strong team, and our boys beat them in the championship, 82-71,” he said.
Next up? Summer league for the team.
“There are 16 teams in that summer league,” said Gross, and with two games per week, the players can keep up their skills and love of the game.
Gross also gives credit to the SLV Hoops program, which allows kids to get on the court, play with their buddies and develop an appreciation for the sport.
“It doesn’t hurt to have some talented athletes, too,” he said. “They’re good kids, they love the game, they play hard, they’re not selfish and they really like each other. They’re just a pleasure to coach.”