WILLITS — Guess, Duane Nelson said Monday, how many outside basketball hoops are located on the Willits High School grounds? I didn't think of it as a trick question. After all, both the boys and girls teams from Willits have made the NCS basketball playoffs.
"Zero," said Nelson, forming a circle as he placed his right index finger against his right thumb.
And thus we begin to explain the implausible journey these two teams have made, a journey that defies logic but nonetheless still occurred, a journey of sacrifice and commitment that would be the equal and the envy of a high school five times its size (Willits' student population is 470).
"Kids here in Willits don't start playing basketball until the seventh grade (when a kid reaches junior high)," said Nelson, coach of the 21-5 boys team. "There's no rec ball or CYO ball here in Willits. If you want to play, you have to have someone take you to Cloverdale and Ukiah. ... On the other hand we have a lot of 19-year olds from Willits who are just coming into their own."
Nelson said that with a laugh, like a-whaddya-going-do laugh. Nelson and Eric Mehtlan, the girls coach, don't whine about what they don't have — each team only has eight players on the roster — but rather they find a way to squeeze every drop of talent of what they do have. This is when the implausible becomes a little bit unbelievable.
The Lady Wolverines play a full-court press all 32 minutes, contesting every shot, every dribble, in every game. They do this with only eight players.
Committing to that style of play with only eight players, with so very little time to rest, don't they know how difficult that is?
"They don't have a clue," said Mehtlan smiling.
It is a indisputable axiom of sports — no athlete likes to feel the opposition as a bee buzzing their head.
"When we go to someone's gym," said girls assistant coach Jody Ward, "we can tell we aren't welcome. We'll never leave you alone. You're always getting harassed."
The Willits girls are irritating — thank you very much for the compliment — and Ward can hear it in the voices of the opposing coaches.
"We were playing Kelseyville," Ward said, "and one of their coaches came over and said, 'When are you going to take your starters out?' I said, 'They are out. Look at our bench. One fouled out. Two others are sitting down. That's all we got.'"
So you can't tell one Willits girls from another?
They all play like bees?
Again, thank you very much. Mehtlan has done such a good job selling the uptempo style that this group of seniors has a 49-3 record in their four years at Willits, junior varsity and varsity. They have won four consecutive NCL I championships.
So, yes, make no mistake, the Willits girls do it the hard way. Consider all the back stories.
Their best player, Alicia Mehtlan, suffered a broken bone in her right hand against Middletown Jan. 4. Even though her hand hurts every time she uses it, even if if just to shake hands, Mehtlan has never missed a game and leads the team in scoring at 18.5 points a game. Kayle Seaton, a sophomore, would have been a starter but blew out her knee in volleyball and missed the basketball season. Samantha DelBello, the team's second-leading scorer, tore her ACL and meniscus and will miss NCS.