Thursday, February 19, 2009

McCleery, girls basketball no longer embrace ‘young and inexperienced’ labels

Jason McCleery had something to share on the eve of the Tigers final Western Athletic Conference game of the year.

The Patterson High girls basketball coach chooses his moments judiciously, his words carefully, but it was time. The Tigers listened intently, as McCleery’s voice now seemingly reaches deeper, a voice strengthened with his team’s hopes of making it into the postseason.

Here was the essence of McCleery’s message: The Tigers couldn’t get suckered into the lowered expectations, just like he wouldn’t let them at season’s start. We’re too young? Too inexperienced? Not enough go-to players? Can’t run to the playoffs?

These were notions that a playoff caliber team must shed.

In the opening weeks of the season, the Tigers collected an uninspired 4-8 non-league record and listened to the doubts developing within. When McCleery first stood to talk, prior to the start of the WAC season, he wanted those thoughts out of his teams’ minds.

Get behind each other, he insisted.

The third-year coach approached the team seeking a trust to start the WAC season and insisted that everyone lose any modest expectations, lose the institutional idea that there wasn’t enough experience on the team, and lose the idea that their younger players were not the least bit confident.

Patterson needed to understand: The road to shedding labels begins with winning.
And win they did.

The Tigers took seven of its first eight league games and battled for the rights to first place in the WAC for most of the season with Hilmar and Livingston.

Still, winning at home against Livingston on Monday — locking the two teams in a tie for second in the league standings — hasn’t erased some painful memories for the few remaining players from last year’s team. When the Tigers fell on the road to Hilmar, 37-36, on the final day of the season, missing the playoffs by one game.

Patterson (14-12, 10-4 WAC) may have one of the best records in the league, but McCleery knows it will take more than that to erase those memories and get to the playoffs.

While Monday’s win helps bolster the Tigers — currently No. 16 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III power ratings — the team must beat visiting Hilmar on Thursday to help assure itself a ticket to the postseason.
Only the top 16 teams earn playoff bids.

For a “young, inexperienced” team, the Tigers have sure found their identity. And whatever improvements the Tigers have made since their stagnant start, it’s certainly showing up in the win column.

Still, most of the weight rests on McCleery’s shoulders to make sure the team doesn’t spend another year on the outside and looking in on the playoffs.

“Of course we’re going to always have fun and enjoy the game, but at the same time you have to play with a chip on your shoulder,” McCleery said in a December interview. “I feel everyone in the locker room should play with a chip on their shoulder, because we have something to prove.”