FAIRFIELD — In his first stint as Fairfield High boys basketball coach, Eddie Wilson took three Falcons teams to Sac-Joaquin Section title games at then Arco Arena.
In coming back after two years as an assistant with the Solano Community College men’s team, Wilson wasn’t sure if it was right to expect a return trip to now Sleep Train Arena from this year’s squad.
There are no doubts now after Fairfield avenged two earlier losses to Vanden with a convincing 80-59 thumping of the Vikings in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals at Cosumnes River College, Tuesday.
The third-seeded Falcons (25-5) take on No. 1 and defending section D-III champion Modesto Christian (21-8) for the crown at Sleep Train at 9 p.m., Friday.
“I thought there was an opportunity to play for a section championship,” said Wilson, who is 234-94 in 11 seasons as coach of the Falcons, the last nine with 20 or more wins. “Each year (before) I thought we had an opportunity, too. The only thing different this year is we didn’t expect to be there, where in years past the team was really good and expected to be there. This year’s (team) was hoping to be there.”
Some of those doubts were because of unfamiliarity with the players, at least as their coach. Wilson remained athletic director and a teacher at Fairfield, but the team he helped coach was at Solano.
“I think we thought this year we would run into spurts where we’d have some adversity just because the guys didn’t know me and I didn’t know them,” Wilson said. “I thought we’d take steps backwards, fight and move forward again. The team is so tough of mind.”
Tuesday’s victory over Vanden is an example of that toughness. The two losses to the Vikings – by a combined six points – were devastating, but the Falcons shook those off, as well as an early 7-0 deficit, to run away with a 21-point triumph.
And with the victory another trip to the arena formerly known as Arco for Wilson. The first three ended in losses: 71-61 to Jesuit of Carmichael in 2007, 44-43 to Rocklin in 2008 and 60-56 to Rocklin in 2009, all in Division II.
Fairfield dropped its two other title game appearances, 61-56 to Merced in 1987, 66-56 to St. Mary’s of Stockton in 1989, both in Division I with Ron Thompson as coach.
If Wilson learned anything from the earlier trips to Sleep Train it’s to enjoy the experience, and then get over it.
“We talked to our guys about how you don’t get these opportunities often, you’ll remember forever,” the coach said. “It’s important to soak it in before you get caught up in the game action, because then there’s no time for it and it’s not appropriate anyway. Take a minute, enjoy it, take mental snapshots and get ready to play a basketball game.”
Rodriguez didn’t really get rolling until the second half of its 73-68 Division I semifinal win over Merced at Sleep Train, Wednesday, partly because of poor shooting the first two quarters.
In its earlier trips to Arco, Fairfield played in both the semifinals and finals, giving it a second chance to get acclimated.
“The big thing everybody talks about at Arco is the depth perception,” Wilson said. “Sometimes kids take warmups for granted, they go through the motions. You have to be focused in pregame, get a feel for the perception because it’s different.”
Wilson is taking nothing for granted about Friday’s opponent. The Crusaders have won 15 SJS titles – all since 1997 – four NorCal championships and two state crowns, in 1997 and 2004, both in Division V.
“The team we’re playing is freaking good, really good,” Wilson said. “We talked about it as a staff and we’re fortunate to get there. I don’t know if I can say if in any of those (earlier SJS title) games we were the better team in action or on paper. It’s the same this game. Modesto Christian is really good. We’re going to have to play extremely well to have a chance.”
The Crusaders, ranked sixth in the state in Division III by Cal-Hi Sports, feature four players 6-foot-5 or taller with the Falcons topping out with four players – Javon Adams, Maurice Trotter, Jordan Jackson and Unree Johnson – at 6-3.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re athletic,” Wilson said. “They have quality depth, they’re coached well, schematically they do a lot of really good things. You’re talking about one of the perennial powers in the state, year in, year out. It’s quite a task.
“At same time, it’s an incredible opportunity. We’re fortunate to have had a lot of experiences playing those types of teams. Most of those occasions we hung around. Some found a way to win. We hung around and put ourselves in a position to make plays.”
Aside from a 11-point loss to Rodriguez (72-61), the Falcons’ other four defeats were by a combined 11 points.
Against Vanden, Fairfield had to deal with 6-8 Jansen Smith and 6-7 Jihad Woods along with 6-4 Tony Terry III.
Wilson is hoping to create matchup problems – six different players hit 3-pointers on Tuesday – with speed and versatility.
“I think we’re going to be able to move their bigs away from the rim,” Wilson said. “We’re going to be able to exploit a couple of one-on-one opportunities and hopefully make the right decision on shooting or passing when we create matchups. Hopefully, matchups will create shot opportunities for us.”
Wilson isn’t looking for his players to do anything more than they’ve done all season, a campaign in which they’ve already tied the fourth-highest win total in school history.
“We don’t have to do anything exceptional,” he said, “just do everything well.”
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.