REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — It was only fitting for Junior Cotton and Calvin Mader-Clark to be surrounded by the entire Hillsdale community in a jubilant celebration following the program’s first Central Coast Section basketball title in 23 years.
The two stars combined to nearly outscore the Christopher Cougars by themselves in a 59-40 victory in the Division II Championship Game, but it wasn’t like they were playing hero ball. The Fighting Knights got everyone on the floor at Sequoia involved, with crisp passing, clean drives to the hoop and repeated open threes on drive-and-kick action.
When it was all said and done, the starters, who got to enjoy the final minutes from the bench after going up by as much as 26 points, joined the reserves on the middle of the court along with an enormous student section that made its way onto the floor despite the best efforts of the security staff on hand to keep them away.
““It’s just an unbelievable feeling that’s gonna last with me forever,” said Cotton, who scored a game-high 22 points. “I’ve dreamed about a CCS championship since freshman year.”
Cotton’s early years at Hillsdale had little in the way of results on the court, with a combined 7-17 league record over his freshman and sophomore seasons, but as a junior, the Fighting Knights went 17-9 overall, 9-3 in league play and had a shot at the buzzer with a chance to tie against Monterey, an eventual NorCal finalist. As a senior, it’s all finally come together, and the hardware that head coach Brett Stevenson received on Saturday afternoon was the cherry on top.
Aside from two possessions in the first quarter, Hillsdale (20-7) led the entire way, up 29-19 at half on a team that had allowed just 27 points in a second round win over Oak Grove, 37 in a quarterfinal victory against Santa Clara and 45 against Gunn two days earlier in the semifinals. Sophomore point guard Tobenna Ezeokeke knocked down a 3-pointer for the first basket of the third to get the seventh-seeded Cougars within seven, but the Knights would reassert control over the following minutes. First came a smooth passing sequence between Matthew Chan and Reece Nobida, then a Cotton elbow jumper for an 11-point advantage. Mader-Clark made a timeout to secure a loose ball worthwhile by hitting a turnaround baseline jumper, and after an Ezeokeke putback, Nobida pulled up from mid-range to give the Fighting Knights what was, to that point, their largest lead of the afternoon.
It would only explode from there. His basket started what was a 10-2 run to close the quarter, with Chan drawing a charge and Cotton finishing an and-1 10 seconds later. He’d make it five points in 14 seconds with a steal and layup for a 42-24 lead, and after another Ezeokeke bucket on a contested turnaround shot, Mader-Clark hit a three from close to NBA range in front of the student section to end the quarter.
Those fans would have plenty more to cheer for in the fourth, with Mader-Clark and Cotton hitting threes sandwiched around a Chris Naulls basket, then a Cotton and-1 with 5:50 left for a 54-28 lead and the last of his 22 points. Mader-Clark hit one last three, a 25-footer, and Oliver Crank, who got the scoring started for top-seeded Hillsdale by scoring six in the first quarter, wrapped things up with 1:35 left to finish with eight points.
“He’s a special two-way talent,” Stevenson said of Crank, who missed the first month of the season with a knee injury and has since proven his worth as the team’s missing link. “He’s really become that third scorer for us in the last month. He’s long, he’s a matchup problem for opponents and he’s locking up their best wing player.”
Crank’s growth and comfort on the floor has helped to transform the Fighting Knights from a team that was almost exclusively reliant on Cotton and Mader-Clark’s scoring to one that can cycle the ball around at ease. Instead of a basketball equivalent of “Spahn, Sain and pray for rain,” incorporating Chan, Crank and Nobida in the offense, plus occasional contributions off the bench from Brett Loy and Nick Robinson, has helped open up better looks for the two heavyweights. Loy’s time on the floor was minimal as Stevenson was largely able to ride his starters, but he fed Mader-Clark on a textbook inside-out play to start the fourth and scored in the second off a stretch pass from Cotton on a play that spoke volumes about his basketball IQ. With 6-foot-9 center Ethan Fleener bearing down on him, Loy came to a perfect jump stop to ensure he’d be able to finish the layup for a 29-17 lead.
“Everything’s started to click in the last couple weeks,” Stevenson said. “We’re sharing the ball, recognizing that the ball’s moving and we have three or four guys that can score in double digits.”
Those main scorers and the reserves who closed the game out, including fan favorites Eric Elgaard and Trevor Scott, were all enveloped in a gigantic celebration at the final buzzer as the entire student section poured onto the court.
“It’s the spirit of Hillsdale High School and a testament to our student body,” Stevenson said of the passion shown by the fans. “Our Knoisy Knights are the best sixth man in the county, and they’re amazing for the way they turned out tonight.”
Saturday’s scenes were truly a representation of the entire Hillsdale community, with faculty and alumni turning out in droves as well. The 21 players on the roster, which includes JV callups, barely makes up one percent of the school’s population, but there’s no doubt the school feels a strong connection with the team, a bond that extends through the special ed department. Team manager Matt Frankel, who made headlines two weeks earlier after knocking down a 3-pointer in the team’s final regular season game, was in the middle of every bit of the festivities.
“Matt Frankel just makes us a team,” Cotton said. “We’re all closer because of him.”
Among the first to congratulate Frankel in the moments following the victory was Benji Nordell, who had served as manager alongside him before graduating in 2019.
“They’re not team managers, they’re members of our team and our school community,” Stevenson explained. “Matt’s just a great kid.”
An out-of-section foe will get a first-hand experience with just how strong the bond is with this year’s Hillsdale team when the CIF State Tournament begins on Tuesday. Should the Fighting Knights get a home game, it would be safe to expect Rich Mazzoncini Gymnasium will be filled to the brim.
While it’ll be Hillsdale’s first state tournament appearance since 1997, it’ll be the maiden voyage for Christopher, a school that opened in 2009. The current run the Cougars are on may be an unexpected one, but there’s a good chance they’ll be around for a while.
“We’re young. We’re losing two guys who play,” second-year head coach Tim Von Urff said. “It’s a whole culture we’re building down here. We work hard, we never give up and we know what it’s gonna take now.”
Ezeokeke and Duncan Ellis each scored nine to lead the Cougars, with Ellis scoring the team’s first five but not scoring again until the fourth quarter. The lengthy 6-foot-3 junior also pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds.
While Ellis filled up the stat sheet for Christopher, Mader-Clark did just about every conceivable thing for Hillsdale, with eight rebounds and four assists to go along with his 16 points.
“I’m always looking for my teammates,” he said of his passing skills. “I know that they always have my back and they’re looking for me, so I just do what I can to make sure the ball’s in their hands at the right time.”
Just a sophomore, the 6-5 shooter is still in the early stages of his career, but he’s not lacking in perspective.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” he said of winning the section title. “The seniors really brought me up and taught me the ways of navigating through this school and this basketball program.”
Cotton and the other eight seniors on the roster will be playing at least one more game, but as they venture into the uncharted territory that is the state tournament, they’ll be doing so with a trophy in hand and the support of a school that came together in a majestic display to celebrate an achievement that hadn’t been seen at Hillsdale since well before any of the current students were born.