HILMAR — In addition to keeping his basketball team focused and ready for play, Mariposa High coach Trace DeSandres has three very important tasks.
He has to keep Cody Wichman healthy, fed and on pace in the classroom.
Wichman is the Grizzlies' key to sailing through the Southern League this season, as he displayed once again Thursday night by scoring 21 points in Mariposa's 63-56 victory over Bret Harte in the first round of the Hilmar Christmas Classic.
But there is a much larger goal for Wichman, a large young man himself at 6-feet, 5 inches and 260 pounds.
As soon as he meets the NCAA grade and test score requirements, he'll be the target of Division I football programs. Fresno State, which struck gold with 2000 Mariposa graduate Logan Mankins, has interest in Wichman as a tight end.
"It's fun catching the ball and it's also fun to block," Wichman said. "It's depending on my grades, but they're pretty good so it looks like it's going to happen. I think Logan might have put in a word or two for me, but I haven't spoken to him."
For the record, DeSandres also is a Fresno State graduate and was the team manager for the Bulldogs' 1983 NIT championship team.
Those Fresno teams were known for playing patient half-court offense, which these Grizzlies do, and for taking care of the ball, which these Grizzlies, right now, do not.
Mariposa (5-1) rode a 21-6 second quarter to a 15-point lead, 43-28, with 5:10 left in the third quarter. It was almost time for the Grizzlies to go to the bench and get some rest for the regulars at the start of this three-day event.
But Bret Harte (4-3) chose that moment to intensify its token half-court pressure to a full-court trap, a trap that snared the Grizzlies. The Bullfrogs closed the third quarter on a press-fueled 14-0 run, then caught Mariposa at 45-45 when Martin DeAnda (18 points) connected on a 3-pointer with 7:01 remaining.
"It's aging me," DeSandres said. "We just short-circuit. We're going to have to adjust because we have our big men in the press break and they have trouble making decisions. We have to get the ball in our guards' hands, but even they made some bad decisions. We have to get better at that, and we will."
Parker Shaddix, who had four 3-pointers en route to 21 points, connected from long range to spark a 12-3 Grizzlies run, and Mariposa was back in control, 57-48, with 3:17 left.
Even Wichman fouling out with about 3 minutes left wasn't enough for Bret Harte, which made only two field goals following DeAnda's game-tying 3-pointer. In fact, foul trouble allowed Wichman to play only about 22 minutes.
"He is very athletic, and when he decides he wants to play he's hard to stop," DeSandres said. "I don't think there are many big kids in the section who can be as good as him, but it's a matter of starting that engine on occasion."
And keeping that motor primed in the Southern League might be a challenge, since Mariposa looks like a clear-cut favorite to sweep through that league.
"I wish we were in the WAC or the TVL," DeSandres said. "We would finish second or third in those leagues, but we're going to go through our league pretty easily and maybe not be ready for the playoffs because of the competition."
The Hilmar tournament actually is four events in one, with the school using both its gyms to stage four, four-team varsity and junior varsity round-robin tournaments.
Hilmar met Big Valley Christian in Thursday's late game. Today, Bret Harte meets Big Valley at 5 p.m. and Mariposa meets Hilmar at 8:30. The event closes Saturday with Mariposa playing Big Valley at 2:30 p.m. and Hilmar meeting Bret Harte at 5:30.
By the end of the weekend, perhaps the Grizzlies will have seen their fill of half court pressure.
"Once we get stuff going, we're fine," said Wichman, whose 21 points came on seven field goals and 7-for-11 from the line. "We need to get across half court and then we can take over games. But getting across halfcourt can be tough for us."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.