Mt. Eden was one of the better North Coast Section Division II boys basketball teams last season.
Hoping for a top five or so seed in the playoffs, the Monarchs were instead dealt the No. 9 seed. They were sent on the road for their playoff opener -- a 62-59 win over Clayton Valley -- and then saw their season end with a quarterfinal loss to top-seeded Newark Memorial.
Mt. Eden fought tough against the eventual NCS champion Cougars, but a 13-0 Newark Memorial run in the third quarter was Mt. Eden's undoing. The Monarchs haven't forgotten that loss or the perceived snub by the NCS seeding committee.
"It fuels me," Mt. Eden coach Aaron O'Brien said.
The fuel has worked well at the start of this season. Fresh off Friday's road win over Castro Valley, the Monarchs took an 11-1 record into Wednesday night's showdown with West Alameda Country Conference-Foothill Division power Bishop O'Dowd.
Knowing how close Mt. Eden was to a breakthrough last season -- a win over Newark would've clinched a berth in the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional playoffs -- the Monarchs are simply working to get better.
"We missed 10 free throws in the third quarter (against Newark), and that was kind of the rallying point this offseason," O'Brien said. "If we make our free throws, the game could've been different. We were at Newark, in the game, and we didn't get it done."
This year's team is experienced and led by seniors Noel Briones, Stevinair Young and Cameron Clerkley. Briones and Young had 22 and 21, respectively, against Castro Valley.
"We have an experienced group, they're veterans in every sense of the word," O'Brien said. "They show up to practice every day, want to be coached and are willing to pay the price."
Mt. Eden may still not have the respect of being one of the top teams in the area, but O'Brien said that's for others to worry about.
"We feel like we've been knocking on the door," he said. "If other people don't think we've arrived, that's their problem. We're just doing what we think we're supposed to."
PANTHERS POUNCE EARLY: The St. Mary's girls basketball team hasn't shied away from good competition so far this season.
"We always schedule tough," St. Mary's coach Nate Fripp said. "It's a normal year."
The Panthers, ranked third in this week's East Bay poll, went 8-2 in its first 10 nonleague games. The rough nonleague road continues Saturday at No. 1 Bishop O'Dowd (7-3) at 4 p.m.
"I expect it to be a good game," Fripp said. "We know their players really well; they know us really well."
The Panthers opened some eyes nationally when they defeated Long Beach Poly 47-45 in the championship game of the Joe Smith Division at the Nike Tournament of Champions on Dec. 22.
"We needed one of those signature-type of wins, outside of the area," Fripp said. "That kind of put us on the map a little bit."
St. Mary's losses this season have been to Carondelet, 70-64 on Dec. 15, and St. Mary's-Stockton, 67-55 on Jan. 5, entering this week.
"When you schedule tough, when league starts, you want to be above .500. I didn't put a number on it -- 8-2 is great," Fripp said. "I just feel that we could have played better in the two games we did lose."
The team's two junior stars, Gabby Green and Mikayla Cowling, have been consistently excellent. Green produced the winning basket in the Long Beach Poly victory and was averaging 14.5 points per game entering this week. Cowling, a Cal commit, averaged 15.1 points per game entering this week.
The Panthers do not have the services of transfer MaAne' Mosley, however. The sophomore suffered a knee injury and Fripp does not see her playing any time soon.