With no clear indication that high school basketball will be played in 2021, the Pioneer Review is commencing with a preview series to feature the teams and athletes that can only wait in the hope of getting an opportunity to take the court.
Thus, starting with the regional state finalist Pierce Bears, each week will highlight a different county basketball team.
After completing one of the most successful seasons in team history where they came within a single game of earning a spot in the state championship, expectations were running high for the Bears to pick up where they left off in 2020.
It was easy to be optimistic given that four of their five starters were returning for their senior seasons, however no one predicted that a complete shutdown of high school sports would potentially derail their plans and disappointing all involved parties as Coach Cody McCullough explained.
“Without a doubt, this year’s roster would be one of the best in decades at Pierce, full of experienced, hard-working athletes that contain next-level talent,” said McCullough. “We all believe we could be better this season than we were last year, which says a lot after being rewarded the No. 1 seed in the D5 state playoffs last year.”
Headlining the group of returners was to be reigning Sacramento Valley League MVP and All-Section pick Justin Mathews, a multi-skilled athlete who, in his previous two varsity seasons, consistently exhibited the ability to take over a game by knocking down outside shots or driving to the rim.
As a junior a year ago, Mathews played selflessly and still was the Bears top scorer averaging 15 points per game and reaching double figures 26 times while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 34 percent from beyond the arc.
Directing the Pierce offense that averaged 60 points per game in 2019-20, would be Eduardo Paiz, an All-SVL performer, who in addition to handling the bulk of the point guard duties, tossed in 10 points per game.
In the paint, the Bears should be formidable as well, boasting a starting lineup that would feature three players over 6’5” in Alex High, Luke Voorhees, and Christian Mata.
2020: 28-5, 8-0
Sacramento Valley League Champions
NSCIF Division IV Section runner-up
CIF State Tournament Division V regional finalists
2nd season (28-5)
High, another All-League selection, had an outstanding season for the Bears last year, supplying energy and working hard underneath where he averaged 10.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in addition to making 48 blocks, and would be counted upon to reprise that role in 2021.
Adding further toughness on the block would be Voorhees, who despite missing 10 games due to injury last season, was a steady presence contributing 8.0 points and 7.2 boards per game.
Joining the starting lineup this season was to be Mata, a big man with a soft touch, who played just over half of the games last season after transferring to Pierce as a junior, but nonetheless hit a team high 54 percent of his shots.
Although Pierce must cope with the loss of All-SVL performer Daniel Medina, a 2020 graduate and the Bears’ assist and steal leader, McCullough is excited about the depth on his current squad.
“Behind our starters, we would be looking at a deep pool of talented and dedicated players. Senior shooting guard Tony Ambriz would be competing for minutes with a great group of juniors who are fresh off winning the SVL junior varsity title, and includes Bryce Murphy, Ryan Travis, Guillermo Jauregui, Brandon Saavedra and Daniel Salud, who all saw heavy minutes in both of their JV seasons,” said the second year head coach.
As the probability of having a 2021 basketball season continues to diminish, it is particularly difficult for this group of Pierce seniors who have played together for years and looked forward to ending their careers on a high note as McCullough articulated.
“To not have a basketball season this year would be devastating for our players, community and program in general. We would lose the opportunity to showcase one of our most talented teams ever and crushing the chance for some to get recruited for college basketball. I’ve watched many of these kids work day in and day out for three years straight making basketball the priority in their life. To now see their final season potentially taken away from them absolutely heart-wrenching.”
Should the opportunity arise, look for the Bears to rise to the top in 2021, competing not only for a section title, but to once again make a run deep in the state tournament. ♣