‘It’s never happened’: Weed boys, girls basketball chase pair of NorCal Division 6 crowns

Aaron Williams
Special to the Mount Shasta Herald
Weed High School boys basketball coach Robert West advises his team during a Feb. 25, 2022, game, when the Cougars won the Northern Section Division 6 championship over Redding Christian 45-42 in Palo Cedro.

Should the Weed boys and girls basketball teams go on to win respective NorCal Division VI titles, the Cougars will be able to cheer each other on. The original schedule called for Tuesday games — at the same time — but the CIF agreed to push back the boys game to 6 p.m. Thursday while the girls contest will remain as scheduled at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

On the boys side, the No. 1 seed Cougars host No. 3 St. Bernard’s (Eureka), while the seventh-seed girls team travels to No. 1 Fall River.

A title for either team would be a first, but to grab a pair of state crowns would be a special moment.

“It’s never happened and I think it’d be pretty awesome,” said athletic director Steve Neel, who’s retiring after 30 years at the high school. 

And while both teams sit on the cusp of a championship, their paths to this moment were very different.

'Getting back in the game again'

Robert West remembers playing for the Cougars under his grandfather, Mike Carpine. The 30-year-old coach beamed with pride three seasons ago when Weed won its first Northern Section basketball title since 1989 … when Carpine was the coach.

This past weekend, he talked about the path from player to coach and how small-town basketball has grown organically in Weed in the five years since he took over the Cougars program.

“I was coming off ACL surgery and the dreams of making my playing career just weren't where I wanted them to be. I had to find a way of getting back in the game again,” he said.

The Weed Elementary teacher got together with friend Jeffery Williams and started an AAU program. They started with younger players and have built the program that now sees those first players playing for the Cougars.

“These (AAU kids) were obviously talented and had success, but the high school hadn’t experienced any success, but had raw talent,” West said. “I decided to pursue coaching (high school) because it was hard watching my grandpa’s program not be successful.”

And from those AAU days to now, the Cougars have seemingly gotten better each season under West, going from 14-11 his first year to an 18-3 mark heading into the D-VI game against St. Bernard’s.

Weed High School senior wide receiver and outside linebacker Tommy Pineda was named to the 45th annual Lions All-Star football game, which will be held at Shasta College on Saturday, June 18, 2022.

This year’s Cougars are led by senior guard Tommy Pineda, the lone holdover from the 2019-20 section championship, along with sophomore point guard D.J. Horton and Mount Shasta transfer Darius Smith.

Smith leads the Northern Section in scoring at 24 points per game, while Horton averages 19 points and 10 assists per night and Pineda chips in 15 points.

“This team is more guard heavy,” West said in comparison to the post-heavy team in 19-20 led by Dallas and Grant Lane. “We don’t really have a big man, but rely on our athleticism and shooting.”

Road to championship games

A grueling spring and summer ball schedule, West said, has prepared his Cougars to take the next step after the 2019-20 team was thumped 79-42 by Ripon Christian in the NorCal D-VI finals.

“We’ve played bigger teams. We’ve made practice so tough that the games seem easier,” he said. “Two years ago, we got beat up against Ripon Christian, but being in those big games helps.

The Weed High School boys basketball team won the Northern Section Division 6 championship over Redding Christian 45-42 on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, in Palo Cedro.

He pointed to the leadership of Pineda, who was on the team that lost to Ripon Christian, as well as Smith, who played for Mount Shasta when the Bears made their state championship bid.

“There’s no nerves for those guys,” West said. “The moment doesn’t get too big for my guys. They know they have to play hard for 32 minutes, and if the other team wins it’s not because they beat us and we didn’t beat ourselves.”

And while West has been cultivating his team for the past five years, Weed’s girls coach, Kent Cunningham, has taken his first team to the cusp of school history.

A junior varsity coach for the boys under West, Cunningham coached in Sonora in 2018-19 before returning home to Weed and jumped at the chance to coach the girls this season.

“This moment is extremely exciting and big for the girls program,” he said on the way home from Saturday’s 69-55 semifinal win over Valley Christian (Roseville). “It’s the first time we’ve won a state playoff game, now two, and now we’re looking for a state championship.

“We’ve come together in a short time.”

The Cougars, 18-12, drew a seven seed in the NorCal round after losing 67-61 to Fall River in the section finals, something Cunningham said became a chip on their shoulder.

“I didn’t think we deserved a 7-seed, but it’s nice to go on the road and beat teams like we are doing,” he said of the 14-point win over Valley Christian and a 54-44 win over Ferndale in the opening round.

Cunningham said, yes, at first glance the 18-12 mark stands out … including a stretch where the Cougars lost eight of nine games. But upon further inspection it shows a team that scheduled upper division opponents in a quest to challenge itself.

“That stretch was tough and we took our lumps from Enterprise and Fortuna and Yreka and West valley, but we did so because I know how tough the SCL (Shasta Cascade League) is,” he said, adding the top teams in the league all have had postseason success. “Trinity got a 1-seed, Mount Shasta made a deep run, and Fall River and Weed are playing for a state championship. 

“We just beat up on each other.”

Key players

If the Cougars are going to solve the Bulldogs on Tuesday — the teams split league games — they’ll rely, the coach said, on their core players.

Senior Karli Reynolds averages 17.3 points per night and Cunningham calls her “one of the best pure shooters I’ve coached in a long time.”

Reynolds is joined by sisters Renaissance and Rachel Johnson, who prowl the post. Renaissance, a 6-foot sophomore, averages 15.8 points per game and has “soft hands and amazing footwork,” while Rachel routinely pulls down 25 rebounds a night.

Add in junior point guard Abigail Escobedo, power forward Barry Tapia and Cunningham’s daughter Mia as the sixth man and it gives the coach a “gritty, hard-nosed, no-quit team.”

Cunningham said the progress from December to now has been nothing short of amazing, but he purposely set the bar high from the beginning.

“When he had our parent meeting I said my expectations were league title, section title and state championship and that will never change,” he said. “I’m sure some were thinking that bar was set a little too high as they haven’t really won much. We’ve had to learn how to win.

“If you asked anyone if the Lady Cougars would be here I don’t think anyone would’ve believed you. It’s an absolute David vs. Goliath. It’s nice to get another shot at Fall River and let’s see what happens.”

Siskiyou County postseason basketball roundup

Boys

Yreka

After falling to U-Prep in the Northern Section D-IV finals, the Miners grabbed an 8-seed in the CIF Division V NorCal Regionals. 

Cliff Blakely’s squad handled No. 9 Modoc 56-53 before losing 55-31 to top-seeded Cloverdale on March 3. The Miners finished the season 16-14.

Mount Shasta

The Bears lost 63-58 to eventual champion Durham in the Northern Section Division V semifinals. The semifinal berth, however, was enough to earn Mount Shasta a 14-seed in the CIF Division V NorCal Regionals. The Bears fell in the opening round 69-45 to No. 3 Stuart Hall (San Francisco), which plays the NorCal semifinals on Tuesday.

Mount Shasta ends the season 12-16.

Aaron Williams is the national editor and volleyball writer at MaxPreps. The former sports editor at the Record Searchlight has been active in the North State sports community for more than 20 years as a writer, and coach at the youth and high school level. He enjoys spending time golfing or hiking with his partner Michelle and their mastiff, Maui.