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February 6, 2023
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By reaching the D5 finals, the Jags changed their narrative


VC coach Jon Jones did a masterful job of getting his Jags to believe they could be a factor in the postseason. Photo by Lenny Kerbs

Oh man, that was a blast while it lasted.

Playing their best ball at just the right time, the Valley Center High Jaguars made a huge statement about themselves by advancing all the way to the San Diego Section Division 5 basketball finals before their magic carpet ride finally ended. 

After three convincing wins over higher-seeded opponents, the Jaguars simply couldn’t get it done in the title tilt and were dealt a 68-36 defeat by St. Joseph Academy, the odds-on favorite to capture the D5 title.

That loss marked the second time that the top-seed Crusaders (20-9) had gotten the best of VC. On December 7, SJA downed the Jags by a count of 69-53. But full disclosure requires it be told that on that occasion the Jags were operating at a distinct disadvantage due to a personnel shortage.

That was not the case last Thursday night at the Mira Mesa High gym. The Jags had all- hands-on-deck and were looking to give SJA a definite run for its money. But alas, VC never could do enough to get its teeth into the game. 

Overwhelmed by a boffo performance by 6-foot senior Mikey Murray—who established season-highs with 31 points and 12 rebounds, Coach Jon Jones’s crew was fighting an uphill battle throughout. So what had been a terrific and redeeming postseason journey concluded with a frustrating final act. “It was rough,” said Jones, “but give St. Joseph their due. They shot well, were efficient and didn’t turn it over.” 

Jones and company knew that in order for them to cop a championship they had to surpass anything they had done previously and be at the top of their game versus the Crusaders. Unfortunately, nothing like that materialized. “We just didn’t execute offensively and our defensive rotation wasn’t very good either,” said Jones. “We were somewhat out of sorts and reverted back to playing hero ball where guys try to do too much. We definitely had a better game in us that we just didn’t show.”

Nonetheless, trailing by a somewhat manageable 11 points at halftime, Jones thought his guys could possibly make a push after intermission and close the gap if they tightened up their play. Instead, the Jags soon slipped further behind at which point they just couldn’t recover despite the efforts of sophomore Carson Yoder, who finished with a team-high 16 points.

As for the dynamic Murray, VC’s coach was duly impressed. “He was ready and he played extremely well,” said Jones. “Though he’s a point guard, shooting is probably his strong suit with his pull-ups and step-backs. Even as an opposing coach, he’s fun to watch.”

Regardless of the disappointing loss, when evaluating these Jags, a big picture perspective must be taken. And in that regard, what this team achieved can’t be minimized.

Having slogged through a challenging regular season (7-19) fraught with COVID issues, injuries, manpower concerns and other impactful factors, the Jags were grateful to simply get a postseason bid. Once there, Jones was able to sell his club on the belief that it possessed the requisite skill and ability to make a legitimate playoff run. Here was a chance to change the season’s narrative from what had been to what could be.

Much to their credit, the 11-seed Jags did indeed flip the script with a remarkable metamorphosis. After rolling past Ocean View Christian and San Diego Jewish Academy in the first two playoff rounds, VC arguably authored its most impressive outing of the campaign when it spanked Southern California Yeshiva 73-38 in the semifinals. What made this triumph all the sweeter was that it avenged an earlier three-point setback to the Hawks in mid-December.

Thanks to a marvelous 24-point effort from active Kevin Garcia that was nicely augmented by 15 more points courtesy of talented freshman Lincoln Zetmeir, the Jags basically controlled matters and had their way with the Hawks. “The players were excited knowing that if we won that contest, we’d make it to a CIF title game,” said Jones. “We were raring to go, we played hard and executed really well. We also felt good about how we matched up with them and how we might be able to take some things away.” 

Though nine Jags tallied in this signature win, Jones understandably saluted Garcia and Zetmeir as the difference-makers. “Without a doubt, Garcia was our catalyst,” said the coach. “He was unbelievable and was so locked in. On offense, he was getting to the hoop and scoring on putbacks while on the defensive end, he offered a real presence.”

And as for Zetmeir? “He was very steady, had a good shooting night and was solid at both ends of the floor,” added Jones.

As a result of their postseason heroics, the Jags had redeemed themselves with a dramatic playoff turnaround that made what transpired beforehand almost inconsequential. They had truly put a totally different spin on how they will be remembered. “It felt like we had a new life in the playoffs,” said Jones. “After the up-and-down struggles of the regular season, it was satisfying to come through in some very meaningful games. They guys were really into it and everyone was having fun. We got on a nice roll there and it was a great way to finish off the year.”

Moreover, VC’s welcomed playoff surge may have residual effects for next season. Now armed with a new-found confidence, returnees such as Garcia, Zetmeir and leading scorer Yoder have seen what they and their teammates can do in the clutch. “I think the program can have a bright future and make some noise,” said Jones. “We’ve got some pretty good players that have gained valuable playing experience so I believe the outlook moving forward could be very good.”

And very good aptly describes the Jaguars’ inspired play down the stretch that made a world of difference, altered the team’s dicey dynamic and forever changed their narrative to a most positive and uplifting one.

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