A team, coach and time for history

In the world of prep sports, there are levels of success that high school teams try to reach, with a championship being the utimate goal at each level.

While winning tournament titles is a challenge, and claiming league crowns is a tougher challenge, capturing a sectional championship is a more challenging venture, and a precursor to a chance at a NorCal banner and the ultimate challenge of possibly being a state champion.

On March 5, 1994 – 20 years ago tomorrow – a historical Valley sports feat was achieved, which, two decades later, still reverberates with the magnitude of difficulty it took to accomplish.

At a sold-out 4,000-seat James Logan High School gym in Fremont, the Sonoma Valley High School varsity boys’ basketball team, under the enlightened direction of head coach Phil Rosemurgy, faced mighty San Lorenzo – ranked No. 1 in the Bay Area, in the NorCal top-five and the state’s top-10 – with the North Coast Section Division-3 title on the line.

With highly favored San Lorenzo expected to dominate the sectional final en route to a NorCal crown and a shot at the CIF state title, the Dragons, who were Sonoma County League champions and compiled an impressive 25-3 record, shocked the whole Bay Area hoops world by instantly taking charge and racing to an eye-opening 22-9 first-quarter lead.

When the Rebels attempted to restore order in the second quarter and resume their position as the title favorites, the Sonoma boys responded by keeping a grip on the game’s momentum and winning the period’s scoring race by a 20-15 margin to take a mind-boggling 42-24 halftime advantage.

When the mostly East Bay crowd anxiously waited for San Lorenzo to come out of the half hungry to dominate the third quarter, it was the team from the North Bay, loudly cheered on by its contingent of Valley supportors, that refused to relinquish control.

Continuing to compliment their proficient offense with tough, swarming, in-your-face defense, the Dragons dictated the third-quarter tempo to the tune of a 17-6 run and took an overwhelming 59-30 lead into the fourth period, and then soared home with an emphatic 71-46 victory, which earned Sonoma its first-ever, in any sport, NCS team championship.

While their sectional title-game triumph over San Lorenzo featured an array of standout individual performances, Rosemurgy and his assistant coaches Roy Jordan and Andy Sallee never wavered from the Sonoma boys’ hoops program’s team-first philosophy, and the Dragons united their personal efforts and became NCS champions.

“Whether coaching high school or college basketball, I always stress to my players that the first word I want to hear coming out of their mouths when talking about the team is not ‘I,’ but ‘we,’ and I’ve been fortunate to have this Sonoma team, and other Dragon squads that played for me, being ‘we’ team-players, and that’s how you build successive programs,” said Rosemurgy, who came to Sonoma with many years of experience coaching at different levels, including being an assistant college coach and recruiter at Montana State and San Jose State universities. “Of course, besides character and hard work, you do need talent to win titles and we had plenty of that on the 1994 Dragon team, which took what we coaches taught and turned it into an amazing achievement. I do, though, have one regret and that is we fell short of the utlimate goal of playing for, and winning, a Division-3 state championship for the school and the whole Valley community, which is always the goal of a head coach, as it should be. But what we accomplished is a lifetime memory for the school, the Sonoma community, and especially for our 1994 team.”

Comprising the school history making 1994 NCS Division-3 champion Sonoma varsity basketball boys’ team were seniors Bobby Alexander, Shane Bresnyan, Darrell Butler, John Florance, Noah Larson, Ryan Morefield, Mark Perry and Trevor Unverferth; juniors Matt Gabriel, Ross Guptill, Linc Isetta, Miguel Rosas and Kevin Unverferth; and sophomore Brenton Sanders.

The multiple-title-winning Dragons were led throughout the season by the all-league, All-Empire trio of all-around, paint-dominating center Alexander; tough-as-nails forward-guard-swingman Florance; and court-savvy, point-guard and floor-general Isetta.

Joining the three standouts in Sonoma’s talented starting lineup were the highly productive duo of Guptill and Morefield, with the composed and impacting lone sophomore Sanders coming off the bench as the all-important and high-contributing sixth-man.

After his strong starting six, Rosemurgy had a deep, gifted bench to turn to and he utitlized his other eight team-players throughout the successful campaign, which started with the Dragons posting a 9-1 preseason record, which included winning both the Arcata and St. Patrick-St. Vincent tournament titles.

Sonoma’s most impressive triumph in going unbeaten in six tourney games was at St. Patrick-St. Vincent in Vallejo, where highly touted cross-town Hogan was favored to power past the Dragons in the opener on its way to easily winning the championship.

But Alexander was the one who established inside power, rebounding every ball in sight and blocking shots, one in particular, that brought the enthralled crowd to its feet, was swatted all the way back to Sonoma’s free-throw line, where Florance, who ended up the tourney MVP, snatched it in full stride and jammed it home as the Dragons toppled Hogan 63-53.

At the holiday break, the Sonoma boys traveled to Hawaii for the annual St. Louis High School Tournament on Oahu and, after winning three straight to reach the tourney title game, they dropped a 52-44 decision to the eventual Washington state champion, Mercer Island.

As defending SCL champions – the 1993 boys hoops team was also strong and claimed the SCL crown, and reached the NCS Division-3 semifinals, where it fell to Hayward and future NBA star Eddie House. Sonoma was favored for a repeat title, but was stunned 45-42 in controversial-called league opener at Healdsburg.

With only their third defeat in 15 games, the determined and focused Dragons went on an 11-game winning streak, which included back-to-back league-ending and title playoff victories over a tough Healdsburg team, after which they upended Arroyo and Northgate in NCS Division-3 games leading up to their historical first-ever NCS title.

In the NorCal playoffs, Sonoma defeated Los Gatos 72-59 to reach the semifinals – one game from competing for a spot in the  CIF Division-3 state final – and a rematch with payback-minded San Lorenzo at UC Davis, where the Dragons were denied a big early lead, like they did in the NCS title game, and their season ended with a 53-47 loss.

While the NorCal semifinal loss was a heartbreaker, the incredible title-winning season, and especially that memorable March 5, 1994, inaugural NCS championship day, will live on forever in Sonoma sports history.