The Wildfires’ numbers game

Undermanned Foresthill overcomes unique challenges to compete for a second staight postseason berth
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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FORESTHILL — Nate Swesey teaches a pre-algebra class at Foresthill High during the day. After school, he faces a numbers crunch that is even more challenging. The Wildfires’ boys basketball team doesn’t have enough players to hold a five-on-five scrimmage in practice. In games, foul trouble is the Foresthill coach’s worst nightmare. But the team is closing in on a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth despite its bantam bench. “We have people foul out and a lot of us have to play the whole game and we can get tired pretty easy,” senior Pliny Murphy said. “You build up your durability playing the whole game and it gets you a whole lot better.” Foresthill (9-11 overall, 3-5 Central Valley Christian League) is No. 14 in the Division V power ratings this week. Looming tonight is a huge game against Delta at home as the Wildfires look to break out of a four-game losing skid. “This league is really good and you can’t just show up and win against anybody,” junior Shane Gray said. Swesey was the junior varsity coach at Placer, learning the coaching craft from Mark Lee, whom he played for with the Hillmen. He went from a 111-year-old school with abundant resources to a 5-year-old school that had changed coaches each season. Swesey has found some unique ways to compensate for Foresthill’s lack of bodies. Assistant coach Cole Miller — also a former Placer player — is an active participant at practices. But with eight players on the roster, even the most basic drills are a struggle. “We always have a couple kids from the JV team come half an hour early for their practice and we can go five-on-five and do some full court stuff,” Swesey said. “They get to play against the big boys and they really like it. They’re all fired up, trying their hardest against the older kids.” The Wildfires’ thin squad took a hit on Jan. 23 when a Foresthill player was suspended for the season after leaving the bench during a mid-game scuffle at Vacaville Christian. Tough losses to Vacaville Christian, Forest Lake and Sacramento Waldorf followed. “Things kind of went downhill after the Victory game, but we’re ready to rebuild,” Gray said. Murphy sports a tattoo that reads “18T” on his left forearm — a memorial for his friend Ben Turner, who was killed in a motocross accident last summer. The point guard has made the most of his senior year and has emerged as a floor leader for the Wildfires, averaging a team-best 12.9 points per game. “All the things he has to do, he really has to work his butt off and I commend him for that,” Gray said of Murphy. “He has to call all the plays, he leads our team in scoring and he does a lot of the dirty work. He’s progressed since day one.” Senior Sean O’Hara has shown he can put up big numbers and Gray is a threat inside or outside at 6-3. Guards Aaron Cook, Jared Mosier, C.J. Wilson, Josh Brown and Travis Greene are major contributors. Even sophomore Jerod Williams, who recently was called up from the junior varsity squad, has performed well. Brown was a member of Foresthill’s first-ever playoff team last year. What’s the biggest challenge for this year’s squad? “I would say keeping fresh legs on the floor, keeping full speed the whole game,” Brown said. “We just push ourselves in practice, push ourselves beyond what we think we can do.” The small roster does have its advantages. Everyone gets to play, everyone on the team fulfills a vital role and most of them have grown up together in the small community 20 miles east of Auburn. “They’ve been playing every sport together since they were 6 or 7,” Swesey said. “I like certain aspects of having a small team because everyone is pulling for each other. They know they’re going to get in. At some time their number’s going to get called and they’ve all gotten so much better from the start of the season.” The schedule is favorable down the stretch and the Foresthill players are excited at the prospect of playing in the postseason. “It’s really encouraging to know we’re this close,” Brown said. “I think if we do make the playoffs we have a chance to do some damage,” Swesey added. “We just have to get there.”