Benefield: Healdsburg, Rancho Cotate set for big rematch in boys basketball

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If you go

Who: Rancho Cotate at Healdsburg

What: North Bay League-Redwood boys basketball

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Well, things just got interesting.

The Rancho Cotate versus Healdsburg boys basketball game Friday night has for weeks set up to be a prime North Bay League-Redwood Division contest — ever since Rancho shocked the ’Hounds, the heavy favorites to win the league, in a 49-45 win Jan. 8.

The rematch Friday was always going to have a little spark. And then Wednesday happened.

The Cougars knocked off Elsie Allen 77-55 to move to 5-2 in league. Meanwhile, the ’Hounds fell 51-46 on the road to a Ukiah squad that had been 9-13 overall and 2-4 in league and second to last in the standings. And with that, the ’Hounds, too, are 5-2.

It’s a stunning development that puts a supremely talented albeit injury-depleted ’Hounds squad on its heels heading into the final three games of league play.

It’s a must-win game for either team wanting to claim the first-ever NBL-Redwood banner.

It’s my guess this was not the matchup anyone was expecting would decide division supremacy.

In fact, I didn’t think there would be a race to the top at all. I don’t think I was alone in thinking the Healdsburg ’Hounds would run away with the league title. I mean, they returned just about everybody from their 2017-18 Sonoma County League champion squad, including SCL MVP Trey Chapman and first-team pick, sophomore Dylan Hayman.

Then they beat Cardinal Newman, Piner and Windsor all before league play started.

But they fell to Rancho and then to Ukiah and now find themselves tied with the Cougars, who hold the head-to-head advantage.

What makes that outcome on Jan. 8 and this new storyline all the more noteworthy is that this is a Rancho team that went 6-19 last year and 2-12 in the last season of the old NBL format.

It wasn’t so long ago, in February 2017, that the Cougars got their first league win in five years.

But a change has been brewing in Rohnert Park, second-year Cougars coach Mike Washington said. He inherited a program on the rise after Adam Green led the program for two seasons and to their first league wins in years.

“Adam Green did a really good job of changing the culture and mindset,” Washington said. “A lot of kids played just to play. Now we have pride, we’re taking the game more seriously. I got pretty blessed. The timing was there for me.”

Timing has not been so good to the ’Hounds this season.

Loaded with talent (and unfortunately for their foes, youth), they have been hammered by illness and injury of late.

Hayman, a first-team All-SCL pick last year in his freshman season, is out with an illness and not expected to play Friday night, according to ’Hounds coach Yasha Mokaram.

The ’Hounds will surely miss Hayman’s 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game. The good news is that junior guard Dewey Widick stepped up in Hayman’s absence and scored a career-high 17 points in the 76-61 win over Maria Carrillo last Friday.

“I think he really understands that he needs to step up,” Mokaram said before the Ukiah game. “We don’t really ask one person to do it. We have a few guys in the rotation.”

If you go

Who: Rancho Cotate at Healdsburg

What: North Bay League-Redwood boys basketball

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Hayman’s loss is proving crucial because he is the guy who is counted on to hit outside shots to keep defenses from sagging too heavily on the ’Hounds’ twin towers of Chapman and his 6-foot-7 freshman counterpart, Graham Macdonald.

And it’s not just Hayman who has been missing. Junior guard Xzavier Vasquez has missed games because of injuries, too. So has Macdonald, who went down in the first quarter of the last Rancho game. His minutes have been limited since.

Mokaram hasn’t put his original starting lineup on the floor at the same time in some time.

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that Mokaram believes the ’Hounds being shorthanded of late has brought the best out of his senior big man, Chapman.

Chapman is averaging 20 points and 14 rebounds per game. Against Carrillo, he grabbed 22 boards.

“He’s been really stepping up,” Mokaram said. “You get the sense that this is good for him. He doesn’t care if we are banged up, he’s just going out there” and leading.

He’s going to need to be ready against Rancho’s frontcourt.

Last time these two teams met, Washington put his defense in a zone and sagged bodies in on Chapman.

“We really focused on trying to overload as much as we could on Trey Chapman,” he said. “Our bigs pretty much sat on Trey and we had our guards focus on Hayman.”

Cougars senior big man Connor Barbato leads that charge.

A standout receiver and defensive end on the Cougars’ football team, Barbato provides crucial muscle in the paint for Rancho.

He’s putting up a team-high 11.5 points per game, along with a team-best six rebounds and nearly two assists.

“He leads us,” Washington said. “He’s our guy that has to do a little bit of everything.”

The Cougars’ offense is balanced — almost too balanced. The Cougars don’t have an ace who they count on for big games night in and night out, so their parity makes them tough to prepare for — but also tough to direct sometimes.

“I never really know who is going to show up and in what form,” Washington said. “It’s making sure we feed the hot hand as much as possible.”

Typically, it could be anybody. Jayvion Scott, a sophomore, is averaging 11 points per game, followed by seven points a contest from both freshman Malik Roby and senior Derek O’Gorman. Senior James Parker, junior Nate Fredlund and senior Alan Crosby are all contributing an average of five points per game.

The teams have had three common nonleague opponents. Rancho lost to Cardinal Newman 73-39, a team that Healdsburg beat 56-49. Rancho lost to Windsor, a team that split its two games with Healdsburg. And both Rancho and Healdsburg lost to Menlo-Atherton, Rancho falling 66-33 and Healdsburg losing 60-55.

But it’s that Windsor split that could be the most telling. The ’Hounds were likely coming into the season loaded with confidence and yet lost to Windsor 68-65 in their season-opening game.

It didn’t sit well with them. When the teams met again 34 days later, the ’Hounds handed the Jags a 48-30 loss.

They understand the revenge factor clearly. And Washington understands that the ’Hounds will likely be extra motivated tonight.

“We have a target on our backs,” he said. “They are going to want that revenge.

“We have to be mentally ready. It’s going to be a battle,” he said.

It’s just not the battle many folks expected.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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