SACRAMENTO – There are only a select few teams good enough to entertain hopes of a state title before their first game.
The Bret Harte High Bullfrogs weren’t one of those teams.
When asked when they first even considered the idea of a state championship, senior star Ariah Fox answered with one word: “Never.”
Well, “never’ has forever been retired in the old goldmining town of Angels Camp. In a story that writer-poet Bret Harte would have enjoyed telling, the Bret Harte girls seized their once-in-a-lifetime chance with both hands. They dominated Marina of Huntington Beach 62-39 Saturday morning in Division V for the school’s first basketball state title.
“The frogs will be jumping in Calaveras County tonight,” first-year coach Jeff Eltringham exclaimed at the podium after the game, surrounded by his smiling team. “This is the one that everyone wants.”
Bret Harte’s improvement could be traced almost from game to game. The Bullfrogs lost three games to finish second behind Calaveras in the Mother Lode League and fell to Valley Christian 71-65 in the Sac-Joaquin Section V finals two weeks ago at Golden 1 Center.
Which means the Bullfrogs (26-7), for all their success, had not raised hardware to the rafters…until they snared the biggest prize of all. Fox, the team’s only All-MLL selection, saved arguably her best performance for her last game with 22 points, 15 rebounds, five steals and four assists.
Fox’s tears on the sideline as the final seconds ticked away validated the emotion she and her teammates invested. It is rare and noteworthy when a team reaches its zenith at the exact moment when it counts the most. Fox and the Bullfrogs accomplished that.
Eltringham has bled Bret Harte purple from birth. He and athletic director Brian Barnett were Bullfrog teammates, and they understand – arguably more than anyone else – what the team had done. Bret Harte played unselfishly and totaled 14 assists.
“They don’t care who gets the credit,” Eltringham said. “They were passing like this since they were little. They trust everyone.”
The only other state titles won by Bret Harte in team sports were a pair of cross country championships in the late 1980s. By the way, Fox’s mother ran for those teams.
“This is huge,” Barnett said. “These girls are leading the way. They make my job easier.”
Fox, slender but heady and resourcefu, showed some of that athletic DNA against Marina. She and her teammates took residence in the Marina passing lanes to force 22 turnovers resulting in added possessions for 21 points.
Bret Harte’s familiarity with Golden 1, hardearned two weeks ago, paid off. The Bullfrogs could not have scripted a better start. They scored the game’s first 10 points—triples by freshman Maddie Kane and junior Chase Silva, and two steals and layups by Fox.
Those steals were a harbinger. The Bullfrogs' disruptive defense, combined with a 47-30 rebounding advantage, gave the Vikings (21-16) no room to operate.
The Bullfrogs’ rebounding edge was further accented by Makenna Tutthill with 10 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots. Marina applied pressure only via freshman Rylee Bradley, a lefty who matched the number on her back with 23 points.
Bret Harte was pushed forward by at least 1,000 fans and a busload of students who made more noise than that number should allow. Once each half, they even did the generations-old “ribbit” cheer.
The team’s momentum accelerated last week when it avenged the loss to Valley Christian with a 62-52 win at home in the NorCal semifinals. Here, Bret Harte took full advantage of a seedings break. The Bullfrogs got the rematch at home only because they were seeded third and Valley Christian seventh, despite VC’s head-to-head win in the section finals.
By then, Bret Harte’s ascendancy had begun. The Bullfrogs motored more than 300 miles into the snow to eliminate top-seeded Fall River 58-47 in the NorCal final. Wisely, Eltringham gave the team a day off to recover.
Eltringham has been mentored along the way by such basketball lifers as former Merced High and UCLA star Gerald Madkins, a coach at Stanislaus State while Eltringham played there.
How Angels Camp figures to honor this historic team is uncertain, but the celebration shouldn’t be small. Make no mistake, for a precious 90 minutes Bret Harte owned this hallowed piece of NBA hardwood. The national anthem even was delivered with a touch of class – a violin solo by Bret Harte junior Reata Lucore.
“I hope the town doesn’t burn down,” Eltringham said. “We don’t do this stuff too often.”
“Never,” in fact. Until Saturday morning.