RICHMOND -- The Salesian High boys basketball team has been in heavy demand over the last five weeks.
The Pride boarded an airplane for Pittsburgh on Thursday to take part in a nationally televised game against Gonzaga-Washington, D.C., on Saturday afternoon in Wheeling, W.Va.
This comes after a crowded December in which the Pride played against some of the best teams in the state in tournaments in Gridley and Torrey Pines, and took on Serra-Gardena and Archbishop Mitty-San Jose in two of the East Bay's most high-profile nonleague games. The Pride has played just once at home in 12 games.
Ultimately, though, the place Salesian most wants to be is Sacramento in March for the California Interscholastic Federation Open Division state championship.
Cal-bound swingman Jabari Bird headlines a deep and talented roster that has every intent of challenging for the title of the CIF's new Open Division, which will have the state's best teams competing in one bracket. Salesian won the CIF Division IV title in 2012.
The Pride opens its Tri-County Athletic League Rock Division schedule against St. Patrick-St. Vincent on Wednesday. For Salesian coach Bill Mellis, league games are more important than any game his team played in December.
"We were fortunate to get invited to play in some good events and play against good teams, and it was great to challenge ourselves like that," Mellis said. "But if we want to prepare ourselves for the postseason, we have to play well in league. I always felt like league play set up the section playoffs, the section playoffs set up (the Northern California playoffs), and so on."
Bird, who averaged 18.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and was the Bay Area News Group East Bay Player of the Year last season, garners a lot of attention for his dynamic play.
But like last year when the Pride went 34-2, Bird is hardly alone.
Seniors Mario Dunn, bound for Montana, and Markel Leonard compose a dynamic backcourt, and Jermaine Edmonds Jr., a 6-foot-4 senior forward, was named to the all-tournament team of the National Division at the Under Armour Holiday Classic in Torrey Pines.
Those four players give Mellis flexibility when it comes to offensive sets.
"All four can kind of play point guard and bring the ball up the floor for us," Mellis said. "It makes it easy for us as coaches. We can run the same play five times and give the defense a different look every time."
Senior Sean O'Neal has done a capable job playing in the frontcourt in nonleague games. And the Pride will be bolstered by the addition of 6-10 center Jonathan Galloway, a transfer from Liberty High in Brentwood who became eligible to play Jan. 1.
Galloway is the only junior on the roster, but the Pride has a talented stable of sophomores that includes guard DeMar Dunn and forward Lance Coleman II. Eight of the 15 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores.
Mellis said Salesian benefited from the leadership of Freddy Tagaloa and Davion Mize last season. This year, it's up to the seniors to show that same kind of example and teach the younger players about the program's lofty expectations.
Like getting back to Sacramento.
"It's not a group that I have to spend a lot of time trying to motivate," Mellis said. "These guys are really down to earth. They're a low key group, not a lot of rah-rah. They want to get down to business."
Rec. Pts. LS
1. Salesian (5) 10-2 75 1
2. Bishop O'Dowd 8-3 70 4
3. Deer Valley 9-3 65 7
4. De La Salle 9-1 60 2
5. Monte Vista 8-2 55 13
6. San Leandro 9-2 47 11
7. Newark Memorial 6-5 41 3
8. El Cerrito 10-5 35 12
9. Campolindo 8-4 33 14
10. Dublin 9-4 30 NR
11. McClymonds 8-6 24 6
12. Freedom 8-4 22 9
13. St. Joseph 8-4 18 5
14. Heritage 12-2 14 NR
15. St. Mary's 12-3 5 NR
Also receiving votes: Oakland Tech (10-3, 2 points), Mt. Eden (10-1, 1), College Park (10-4, 1), Castro Valley (5-5, 1). Records are through Saturday. The East Bay Boys Basketball Poll is voted on by the prep sports staff of Bay Area News Group East Bay.