The San Domenico Panthers traveled to Colusa County and emerged with Northern California Division V Championship.

From winless in league to NorCal champs: The incredible rise of San Domenico hoops

October 12, 2020

Even in a world where things change at incredible speed with regularity, the ascension of San Domenico’s boys basketball program is like no other.

A program in its third year of varsity hoops and a year removed from going 0-10 in Bay Counties League play, the Panthers posted a winning record in a grueling league and then followed that up by winning the Northern California Division V title, an incredible feat, even if the journey was stopped short of the state championship game berth that the team had deserved.

Yes, critics will point to the ability for a private school to welcome in transfers, but even before a couple of key players gained eligibility during the season, this was a vastly improved team over the one that went just 6-19 the year before and lost four games via a running clock, largely propelled by a selfless approach.

“Everyone cherished their role, whether it was starting or coming off the bench,” assistant coach Joe Corby said. “Our guys didn’t care about their final stats. Just team results.”

The Panthers made waves early by taking Acalanes down to the wire in the first game of the San Rafael Bulldog Classic, a tournament in which San Domenico, expected to be the whipping boys of the field, ultimately won the consolation bracket, defeating the hosts along the way.

A week later, they put up a similarly admirable showing in another North Bay tournament, losing by just five to perennial Northern Section power Foothill-Palo Cedro in the opening round of the Red Brown Classic at Drake. This time, SD would come up short in the consolation bracket, but the Panthers lost by just two to Pierce, a team that would show up again on their radar later on.

If the other five teams in the BCL West weren’t already on notice from what the Panthers did in nonleague play, the league opener certainly sounded alarms at Division 4 and 5 schools everywhere as San Domenico posted a thorough 56-41 win at defending league champion Stuart Hall.

The rest of league play wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as evidenced by the ensuing 61-36 loss to University, but a team that only kept three league games close the prior year still managed to go 6-4 in one of the best small-school leagues in the Bay Area, beating every team at least once with the exception of the aforementioned Red Devils, who posted a perfect mark in league play.

Aside from losing the rematch to Stuart Hall, the Panthers posted a better result in their rematch with the other four league opponents, including a remarkable turnaround against Urban. Two weeks after losing 66-40 on the Blues’ home floor, San Domenico flipped the script with a solid 61-52 victory.

A year after the Panthers didn’t even sniff the postseason and ended their season unceremoniously with a blowout loss on a Saturday afternoon at Stuart Hall, San Domenico got to experience playoff basketball for the second time as a program. The Knights did bounce SD in the BCL West semifinals, but the Panthers earned their first state tournament appearance in program history by blowing out both Swett and Bentley in the NCS Division 5 Tournament before falling to Clear Lake in the semis.

Upon arrival in the state tournament, the Panthers, seeded third in Division V, ensured they wouldn’t just be quick visitors. An opening-round tilt with East Nicolaus was over before it started, with a running clock in effect for the end of a 75-22 massacre.

Aleksa Milentijevic’s 20 points helped put away a pesky Gridley team in the second round, and the Panthers went on the road to top a Bradshaw Christian team that had taken Stuart Hall down to the wire, played a tight game against Sacramento-area power Woodcreek and even beat Monterey Trail, another regional power. Undeterred by BC’s athleticism, Milentijevic scored 24 and Grey Snyder added 20 for a 64-58 win in which the Panthers shot 17-of-20 from the line.

That left Pierce, a team the Panthers had lost to back in December, as the only thing standing in the way between the young program and a NorCal title. The trip to Colusa County was a roaring success, with San Domenico undeterred by the enthusiasm of the home crowd, taking what was a five-point game at the half and cruising to a 58-37 win over a Bears team that had won 28 games, allowing just 16 second half points on the heels of a tenacious press. Snyder led the team by scoring just 10, but all eight of his teammates also scored at least four.

An already precarious situation with COVID-19 unraveled the very next day with Rudy Gobert’s positive test, but even though the Panthers didn’t get to play the televised state championship game they had earned, there was no mistaking that the 2019-20 season was an enormous success for the program. Yes, replacing first-team All-Leaguer Grey Snyder, his leadership and his 10.5 points per game will be an obstacle, but the only other seniors who got serious minutes were Max Ray, who averaged three assists per game while sharing point guard duties with Logan Robles, and Parker Bizjack, whose defensive prowess was on display throughout a NorCal run in which San Domenico allowed just 43 points per game.

Also graduating were Nik Axelsen and Tafari Norton, role players who helped weather the storm of the 2018-19 season. Both Milentijevic and Luka Mihajlovic, Serbian transfers who gained midseason eligibility, will have their senior years ahead of them when the pandemic is snuffed out, and Robles will man the point. Liam Kilroy, who averaged eight points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore, has another two years to play at center in a league with few players who can match up to his skillset.

The cancellation of the state championships may have deprived San Domenico of a couple hours in the spotlight, but small schools around the Bay Area certainly took note of what the Panthers did, and they’ll surely continue to be a force in the coming seasons.

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