By Bill Choy
Triplicate Sports Editor
The importance of senior leadership to the success of the Del Norte High boys basketball team was on full display at practice on Monday.
The squad was wrapping up the practice session and getting ready to run sprints.
Three players, seniors Chad Freeman, Saxon Schultz and Cliff Van Hook were selected to shoot free throws.
If any of them missed, the team would have had to run extra sprints. All three players calmly made their shots and no additional sprints were needed as their teammates cheered them on.
Giving it their all
From practice to game night, the six Warrior basketball seniors have been determined to work 110 percent to ensure that they and their teammates are doing everything in their power to play well and win ball games as one cohesive unit.
Their positive influence and dedication have been a key reason Del Norte won the Big 5 Conference crown, which means an automatic berth in the North Coast Section playoffs. They earned a first-round bye in the Dick Niclai Tournament, which begins for the Warriors tonight against Hoopa at home.
"This is always the hardest part of the year, saying goodbye to the seniors," head coach Blaine Lopez said. "I just feel so pleased to have had such a great, great group of kids."
Freeman is known as a consummate leader who plays great defense, distributes the ball well and can shoot the rock when called upon. Freeman was also the starting quarterback for the Warrior football team the past three years, leading them to three Big 5 titles.
Van Hook has stepped up his game big time this year.
He had been given the responsibility of being the guy with the ball in his hands in key moments and has not disappointed.
While not the most physically imposing player on the court, he has quickly earned the respect of his teammates and the competition with his deft shooting touch and toughness on the court.
He is the Warriors leading scorer and has made several key shots this season. This includes two crucial free throws near the end of a game against Eureka on Jan. 23 to help the team win the game 48-47.
Schultz has been a tenacious force in the post spot, grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers on defense. On offense, he has pulled down many missed shots and capitalized them into points.
His backup, Andrew Fallman, has been a major spark off the bench, using his size and rebounding skills to great effect.
He has also come up with several key shots in crunch time this season.
Trevor Rook has been a key contributor off the bench, especially as a defensive presence and has made several crucial steals and defensive stops this season.
Evan O'Brien did not play basketball his junior season to concentrate on getting ready for baseball season.
Although he has not seen much playing time this season, coaches and players says he is a hard worker whose positive presence and willingness to do whatever it takes has been greatly appreciated by the team, his fellow seniors and Lopez said.
In the last regular season home game against McKinleyville, O'Brien had his chance to shine. He came in with about a minute remaining and scored four points to a vocal group of supportive Warrior fans.
A long history
The senior boys have been playing basketball for years, many since they were in grade school and "were short, little pudgy kids," Freeman said.
The boys recalled their time in junior high when Freeman, Rook, O'Brien and Fallman were all on the Redwoods team and Van Hook was playing for Crescent Elk. The group playfully teased Van Hook for his team never having defeated their team when they played in junior high.
Freeman said having this long history helps on the basketball court.
"We have a good feel for each other," he said.
"It's fun playing with these guys," Van Hook said.
Coming out strong
Last year, Del Norte finished second in the Big 5 and lost to Arcata in the first round of the Dick Niclai tournament, ending their season.
The seniors said that experience left a bad taste in their mouths and they wanted to make sure it didn't happen again this year.
Lopez said his seniors are all true leaders and embrace the team concept stressed by the coaching staff.
Without the seniors buying into the system, Lopez said, what the coaches were trying to instill could have easily fallen apart.
This senior group has worked hard to become players their teammates can look up to, he said.
The group is also close knit, which helps with the chemistry on the court.
"They like each other. They hang out together off the court," Lopez said.
For Lopez, "It's going to be strange looking around next season and not seeing their faces."
The players said they have enjoyed their time on the varsity basketball team and commended Lopez and assistant coaches Dave Brous and Greg Yeager for helping them become better players and people.
"They're not just coaches, but friends," Schultz said.
The seniors said they like that the Warriors are truly a team and trust each other. If one player has an off night, the team has faith that another player, or players will step up and have a good game.
"We've worked so hard all these years and to become league champs¬óit's a great way to finish my career," Fallman said.
Van Hook said he plans to go out in the remaining games the team has, and like he has done all year, give it his all, knowing this is his and his fellow seniors' last chance to have a positive playoff run.
"You can't come back next year," he said.
A memorable experience for the seniors and the rest of the team came in December, when they played at a tournament in Florida at the Walt Disney World Complex in the Orlando area.
The Warriors went undefeated in their bracket.
The seniors said the experience proved to them they could play well against elite teams and gave them confidence going into the Big 5 season and proved to them if they remain focused and played great defense good things would occur.
Del Norte faced top squads from North Carolina, the Bahamas and Palm Springs in Southern California.
"It was a special experience," Schultz said. "When do you get to play basketball at Disney World?"
All the seniors said they will miss being Warriors next year, and it has been an experience that they will always hold dear in their hearts and minds.