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Rocklin, Whitney on hoops high

Both schools to play in section semis
By: Kurt Johnson, senior sports editor
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For years now, the boys basketball program at Rocklin High School has been the main event at this time of year, and with good reason. Playing before packed houses every night, the Thunder have entertained the community deep into playoff season. Lately, Rocklin has held a standing reservation at Arco Arena, home of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinals and finals as well as the Northern California and state finals. At high schools around the area, the top basketball programs spend the season dreaming of getting to Arco. At Rocklin, this year’s team has expectations that go beyond getting to Arco just once, but also include high hopes of return trips through the state finals. Flying beneath the radar across town, the new kids on the block are in the process of creating their own high standards. In just its fourth year of existence, and its third year with varsity sports, Whitney High is on the rise athletically, and this year, the Wildcats have also won their first two playoff games and earned a trip to the section semifinals. “The Whitney athletic program is off to a great start,” said David Bills, an assistant principal and athletic director at Rocklin. In contrast to the situation at across town, where two playoff wins leads directly to Arco Arena, the Division III playoffs, in which Whitney participates, take a detour to Galt High School for round three before heading off to the big gym in Natomas for the finals. While there are certainly similarities between the two programs, the contrasts are stark. Rocklin is off to the section semifinals for the fourth consecutive season. The first year of that run was the first year of existence for Whitney, and the school did not even have a varsity basketball team. The Thunder have a huge community following, and have played to standing-room only packed houses more than once, even this year when the early round games are seen by many as just mere warm-up acts for the main event that is yet to come. “We have a good following for every game,” Bills said. “The team is exciting to watch.” To date, Whitney’s greatest sports moments have come on the gridiron, where the Wildcats won a section title in the fall. The students have come on strong in support of the basketball team, but the community is just starting to catch on. “The attendance at the game last Friday was awesome,” said Jason Feuerbach, activities director at Whitney. “The student involvement in the game was the best we have seen all year. It was definitely our best showing yet at a basketball game. Not quite the excitement that there was during the football playoffs, but definitely close.” Rocklin coach Steve Taylor has been there since the school opened, and has built a tradition of excellence over the years. He is a fixture on campus and in the community. Whitney coach Bryce Newell is in his first year on the Wildcat bench, and is not even a teacher on the Whitney campus. Newell came over from Sierra College, where he is still employed, and where he was an assistant basketball coach. His Whitney tradition is its infancy. Rocklin has established an identity that goes far beyond the city limits, having played at national tournaments and been ranked in national polls. The Thunder have a player, Brendan Lane, who has been recruited to play at one of the nation’s most prestigious basketball powerhouses, UCLA. The Wildcats are relatively anonymous outside the immediate area, and seem to have no major college recruits in the immediate future. Two players in the main rotation with this year’s Rocklin team, Cody Kale and Anthony Romero, were actually part of the Whitney program just one year ago before moving over to join the Thunder this school year. All of the differences aside, these two basketball teams and the fans that follow them arrive at this week with hopes of a section title still intact. Rocklin is the favorite to win the Division II crown, while Whitney is a heavy underdog in the D-III field. Excitement is building at both campuses, as students step up to support their teams. At Whitney, the newness of this playoff run on the hardwood has created a heightened excitement level. “We have a great student section,” Feuerbach said. “We call it the X-Factor. The group originated last year and is our biggest club on campus. They dress-up in maroon and gold for the home games and cheer on the athletes.” Having been down this road before, you would think there would be a lower level of hype over at Rocklin, but Bills insists that the anticipation of a deeper run into the postseason has provided the excitement. “It is difficult to repeat the excitement level of that first year,” Bills said. “The high expectations for this team make this year exciting in a whole new way.” With a second school making a move toward the hoops elite, Rocklin is quickly becoming a dominant high school basketball city. “There is more of a buzz around the middle school campuses this time of year,” said Jerry Ryan, the athletic director and basketball coach at Granite Oaks Middle School. “The kids enjoy going to the games because they can see themselves potentially playing at that level and school some day. A lot of the kids usually know someone on the teams because the community is so close.” Whitney faces top-seeded Sacramento High in the D-III semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night at Galt High School. The Thunder, seeded No. 1 in D-II, face Will C. Wood of Vacaville in their semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night at Arco Arena. The Division III final tips at 9 p.m. Friday night and the Division II final begins at 5 p.m. Saturday. Both finals will be played at Arco Arena.