When new coach Anton Lyons gathered the Petaluma basketball team for its first practice, he had only one expectation.
“I expected us to compete,” he said.
His expectations were exceeded. Not only did the Trojans compete, they came very close to shocking the Vine Valley Athletic League world. Only a slump at the end of the season, caused at least in part by the injury-forced absence of team Most Valuable Player Esteban Bermudez, cost Petaluma a share of the league championship.
Still, a 17-10 record and an 8-4 second-place finish in league were a surprise for a team with a new coach and only two senior players.
“I didn’t expect us to do as well as we did at the start,” said Lyons, “but I realized we could be competitive and we were, right up until Esteban got hurt.”
Petaluma won its first four games and began VVAL play with an 8-4 record as players individually, but, more importantly as a team, bought into Lyons’ philosophy of an inside-out offense featuring a junior who had played a total of just 15 minutes the season before.
Lyons said 6-5 Julian Garrahan took his limited playing time personally. “He worked hard,” Lyons said. “He was always ready to get better. He was our leading rebounder and the first option in our offense.”
Petaluma had only two seniors on the team. Ryan Sullivan was the entire package for the Trojans. Lyons called him “our best shooter. He hit so many important 3’s.”
None were bigger than the one Sullivan hit just before the buzzer to give Petaluma a 60-57 victory over Casa Grande. He also was an important rebounder who not only played forward, but moved into the pivot at times.
He received the team’s Sportsmanship Award.
Also giving Petaluma time in the pivot was 6-5 Alex Seidler, a transfer from Slovakia. “He just fell into our laps,” Lyons noted. “He had a great attitude.”
The Petaluma offense always started with Bermudez, one of the team’s best players as a sophomore last season. An outstanding 3-point shooter, he passed up many of his own scoring opportunities to set up his teammates.
“When we had Esteban, our offense was pretty much unstoppable,” Lyons said. “He bought into our philosophy. We often used him as a decoy. There were times when we let the handcuffs off and he was able to take over a game.”
Bermudez was chosen the team’s Most Valuable Player and a first-team all-leaguer.
Liam Gotschall was the team’s outstanding defensive player who also hit some key shots. “He was tenacious,” the coach said. “If you needed a dog in the fight, Liam’s your guy.”
A pair of sophomores made important contributions. Both Cole Garzoli and Ryan Giacomini played key roles at times, Garzoli up front and Giacomini as a sharp-shooting guard.
Junior varsity veteran Ivan Cortes stepped up big time when Bermudez was injured, and another junior, Eric Perez, also came in to provide valuable minutes.
Still, there was no truly replacing Bermudez.
Petaluma was leading the VVAL by two games when Bermudez went down. The Trojans then lost three of their last five league games and barely beat Casa Grande and Napa.
One of the first things Lyons had to do was put together a staff, and he said he was pleased with how Andrew Riley, Steve Mahrt and Brian Siebel came together to help with the varsity.
“The coaches did a great job,” he said. “They all bought into my philosophy; they were always positive and they always had my back.”
A pair of former St. Vincent High School head coaches, Jared Pengel and Lance Phillips, coached the younger players, Pengel leading the junior varsity and Phillips coaching the freshmen.
Lyons is already looking to next season, when he loses only Sullivan and Seidler.
“It is nice to watch the progress the players make, to teach them they can be good, to watch them struggle and get better,” he said.