ALL-AREA GIRLS BASKETBALL: R.V.'s Zaragoza named Coach of the Year
Led program to first 20-win season
It may have been a mere five games into the season, but River Valley High coach Tom Zaragoza already knew his team was in need of a change.
Despite being loaded with talent at virtually every position on the floor, the Falcons had stumbled out of the gate early, forcing the veteran coach to re-evaluate the way his team should play, especially on the offensive end.
The simple fact was his team lacked true 3-point shooters, so Zaragoza had no choice but to scrap the fast-paced, run-and-gun system he ran for the previous two years. Instead, he opted to run more set plays out of his team's half-court offense.
The Falcons regrouped, made a few subtle changes and away they went.
"We were 2-3 five games in, so we made minor adjustments to the kids' playing time," Zaragoza explained. "No one complained. Everyone accepted their role and we went on from there."
And despite that slow start, River Valley soon caught fire and embarked on the most successful season in program history.
The Falcons ended the year with an impressive 21-7 record and finished second to Inderkum in the Tri-County Conference standings with an 8-2 mark. The win total set a school record, and in the process, they earned the program's first ever trip to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
"We found 21 different ways to win. Sometimes it was offense, sometimes it was defense, sometimes it was the kids' refusal to lose," he said. "It all depended on what we needed that night."
Zaragoza knew exactly the right strings to pull and it shouldn't come as a surprise.
He's coached both boys and girls basketball in the area for 24 years and was named the A-D's All-Area Coach of the Year in 1998 and 2005 when he led the girls program at cross-town rival Yuba City.
Now, he's earned the honor again, this time with River Valley.
"I thought we could win 16 games, but our main goal was to beat Natomas both times," Zaragoza said. "But when you hear that word '20' in basketball, you know you had a pretty good season."
Zaragoza said there were two key reasons to why the team was so successful this year.
First, was a strong coaching staff. The Falcons have nine coaches involved with the program — two freshmen, three JV and four varsity coaches — and each one brings something different to the table.
That allowed Zaragoza to sit back and do what he does best — coach the game.
"We've got a lot of good people involved with the program," he said. "Everybody had a job or responsibility to do and that took a lot of pressure off me."
The second reason for the Falcons' rise was the drive of his players.
"We started a year-round program and the kids worked very hard in the offseason," Zaragoza said. "They really committed themselves to the team concept this year."
Since taking over as coach three years ago, Zaragoza has watched the Falcons improve each season. They went 9-16 his first year and 11-16 his second before breaking the 20-win plateau this season.
Now, the Falcons will look to build on their success. Nine players will return to the team next season and Zaragoza plans to beef up River Valley's nonleague schedule to bolster its playoff seedings.
"We're in a good position," he said. "The goal now is to compete for a possible TCC title and get a home playoff game."
If his track record is any indication, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Falcons do both.