SALIDA — For years, Nick Podesta mined the Holiday Hoop Classic for the region's most promising high school talent as a member of the Fresno City College coaching staff.
Today, he checks in with different credentials.
Podesta is the first-year boys basketball coach at Weston Ranch, the 2018 Holiday Hoop Classic champion. He takes over for Chris Teevan, now an assistant coach at Modesto Christian and the architect of many of the Cougars' historic moments.
Much like his teams at Fresno City, Podesta's Cougars play with tempo and frenetic energy. They are a blur, end line to end line, and as a result, the buckets come in bunches. In its opener, Weston Ranch battled Bakersfield Christian to the buzzer in the highest-scoring game of the tournament so far, falling 90-82. On Tuesday, the Cougars rebounded with a 79-70 victory over Turlock to remain in the consolation championship bracket.
Richard Banks poured in 27 points, Khristian Holmes had 16, and Jordan Hernard finished with 11 on three 3-pointers for Weston Ranch, which will play Edison on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
"We want to set the tone in terms of tempo and we want to set the terms as far as energy," Podesta said. "We want to be the hardest-working team in every single game we play this year. We just have to learn to finish possessions. What's been consistent with the losses we've had this year is an inability to finish at the rim and an inability to finish with rebounding.
"We understand we'll be the smallest team in every game we play and that's not an excuse. We got to get back, fight and finish our possessions. That's going to be a big thing in our development."
Podesta's transition to the high school bench has been a "wonderful one," he says, but it has been challenged by a schedule fit for a king. Weston Ranch's losses read like a "Who's Who" of Northern California basketball: Sacramento, Grant and Burbank of the Sacramento area, Elk Grove, Clovis West, and Modesto Christian, the odds-on favorite this week at the Holiday Hoop.
Still, Podesta, hired on campus as a math teacher, loves the buy-in he's received from his players and staff.
"The kids have made the transition a wonderful one. I love my team, and this is coming off a tough loss (to Bakersfield Christian)," he said. "When you watch Weston Ranch basketball, you're not going to find too many teams that play harder than us. ... The kids have made it a wonderful experience for me and they've bought in. Now, do we need to get better? Absolutely. But they come in every single day with the right attitude and right commitment to the process, and we've seen quite a bit of growth."
The move from Fresno City, where Podesta finished his tenure as the interim head coach, has forced him to change hats and sharpen another skill. He no longer has the luxury of recruiting talent to fit a scheme. Now he and his staff must develop and teach, a challenge he believes will make him a stronger coach.
"When you're recruiting to your system and schemes, you understand what you need on a year-in and year-out basis. When at Fresno, we ran three different offenses to suit our talent. Here, you have what you have, and you have to make sure you're putting players in position to be successful.
"With the small roster we have — we don't have any seniors and we don't have forwards — you have to be creative with how you get stops and how you're going to try and score. It's certainly challenged me to be a better coach and teacher of the game."
With no seniors and little varsity experience across his roster, Podesta has leaned on Xavion Bell, a junior who plays with a poise and acumen that belies his youth. Bell had just four points on Tuesday, but Podesta says the 5-foot-8 junior does all the things not recorded in the stat book. His greatest accommodation: Bell was the only unanimous selection as team captain.
"One of the kids who has been the heart and soul of our team is Xavion Bell. He was a kid we lost for three games earlier this year due to quad injury and you really felt the lack of his presence," Podesta said. "He's been the guy that has made my job the easiest. We have a number of other guys who are really talented ... but Xavion Bell has been the straw that has mixed the drink."