DANVILLE -- Monte Vista High boys basketball coach Nick Jones was quick to credit his players, particularly his seniors, when told he was named Bay Area News Group's East Bay Coach of the Year for this season.
After all, the job becomes a bit easier when the best players are also the hardest workers, and the team as a whole embraces a defense-first mind-set that would become its trademark during a historic 2013-14 campaign. The Mustangs were a self-motivated group that had high expectations that went well-beyond just competing for a league title.
But it's been Jones, a Monte Vista alum, who has been responsible for setting the tone for the program since he was hired two years ago. He demanded a lot, perhaps more than some thought was possible. But the team responded, and went on to unprecedented heights.
Led by its suffocating defense, Monte Vista won East Bay Athletic League and North Coast Section titles and capped a 32-1 season with a 66-55 win over Centennial-Corona in the CIF Division I state championship game.
"It didn't take long for us to realize that he was meant to be here and we were meant to be coached by him," Mustangs senior center Spencer Rust said. "His system was tough at first, he demands a lot from us. But we all bought into his ideals of hard work, teamwork and working for everything, earning everything."
A change in Monte Vista's mind-set occurred at the end of the 2012-13 season, when the Mustangs lost 68-62 to Freedom in the quarterfinals of the NCS Division I playoffs. Jones told his team that if it was going to win an NCS title in the future, then it would have to stop playing games in the sixties.
Jones said it took a little time for players to totally buy into the defense-first concept. Once they embraced it, though, Monte Vista was tough to beat.
The Mustangs did not allow more than 59 points in any of its games this season, and began the year with an 18-game win streak. They became the first team in almost 20 years to beat De La Salle in league play twice in one season, and entered the NCS playoffs as the No. 1 seed in Division I.
After close wins over San Leandro and De La Salle, Monte Vista played one of its more impressive halves of the season to run away with a 57-41 victory over Freedom in the section title game.
"When your leaders are your hardest working guys, it makes a big difference," Jones said. "(Guard) Trevor John would score 25 points in a game and be the hardest working guy on defense."
Monte Vista would win its first two Northern Regional playoff games in convincing fashion. But in the regional final, the Mustangs came across a Freedom team determined to give the Mustangs a better game. It was close throughout, and it appeared Freedom had the momentum after Elliott Smith hit a 3-pointer as time expired in the second half to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Jones spoke with the team before the extra session began, but he wasn't aware until later that the five senior starters had also huddled amongst themselves. Monte Vista dominated overtime, and carried that momentum into the following week in an impressive victory over Centennial to put a cap on a tremendous season.
Since then, Jones and members of the team have been riding high -- getting well-wishes everywhere they go. The school will have a ceremony for the players, who will be fitted for rings.
"It's been a wild ride," Jones said. "I knew we'd have a good team, but I didn't know it would turn out like this. It's been great."