By Jared Green
Daily Planet Staff
When people talk about Berkeley High basketball, conversation usually turns to the Lady Yellowjackets. Eight North Coast Section titles in the past decade can have that effect. Although the boys’ team won league titles the last two years, they were overshadowed by their powerful female compatriots. Mike Gragnani wants to change that.
“I think Berkeley High is a sleeping giant in boys’ basketball,” said Gragnani, who was hired in July to coach the Yellowjackets. “I want to get the program right up to the level of the girls, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.”
That optimism is part of why Gragnani was hired.
Berkeley High is one of the biggest schools in California, and it has more than its share of outstanding athletes.
But the boys basketball team has never parlayed that wealth of talent into an NCS title, or even made much of a post-season run in the last two decades.
Gragnani sees a solution coming.
“With the amount of talent available, we’ve already got a head start,” he said.
“We can teach the student-athlete how important intensity is, we can dominate the competition,” he said.
Assuming that’s true, Gragnani and the Berkeley job were made for each other. Gragnani started as an assistant coach at St. Ignatius (San Francisco), his alma mater. He stayed there for five years under the tutelage of veteran coach Don Lippi, then moved on to the head job at Redwood High in Larkspur. The suburban school was a good starting point for Gragnani, but he hungered for a more competitive atmosphere.
“I wanted to compete with the big boys, the best teams in the state,” he said. “That’s just what this job gives me.”
Gragnani, 40, has thrown himself into the job, spending time not only on basketball, but on setting up academic programs for his players. He’s a stockbroker in real life, but it’s obvious that basketball is his passion, and his players see that.
“He’s very intense, and we feed off that,” said Berkeley forward Louis Riordan. “He wants for us to win so badly.”
Riordan, a senior, has been on the varsity squad for three years, and he agrees with his coach that the potential is there in the program for great things.
“Berkeley has the potential to go to state every year,” he said. “The last two years, we had incredible talent, probably better than this year, but now we’ve got the team chemistry to go with it.”
That chemistry was lacking, some say, because of the former coach. Stelton Mitchell was the coach since 1980, with a break from 1994-96, and many felt he was burnt out on coaching. He admitted as much when he stepped down in May.
“I’m just having fun,” Mitchell said then. “I’m trying to instill that principle into the guys not to put pressure on yourself, because sometimes that can be your worst enemy.”
One observer said Mitchell “didn’t seem to be into it, either on the court or off.” Even with EBAL titles the last two years, many felt the team underachieved. Gragnani wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“I told the players from day one what I expected from them,” he said. “I’ve done my best to squelch any old attitudes about no caring.”
Gragnani’s coaching style
is in-your-face, and so is the
system he teaches. His players defend all 94 feet of the court, a full-court press that never gives an inch.
“I’m a full-court coach, and I always will be,” he said. “It just so happens that this team was tailor-made for the system, with the quickness and depth that we have.”
Indeed, Gragnani inherited players that fit his system perfectly. While lacking size (the slender Riordan is the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-5), the ’Jackets boast four guards who can pressure the ballhandler all the way up the court. And when senior Ryan Davis arrived as a transfer from Lincoln (San Francisco), Gragnani got a guard who is a natural leader at the point.
“I was an off-guard at Lincoln, but it’s been an easy transition to the point,” Davis said. “I feel that’s my natural position.”
But even if he had more size to work with, Gragnani said he wouldn’t change much.
“We have to be up-tempo this year with our personnel, but we’ve got some big kids on JV who will come up next year,” he said. “They’ll have to learn the system too, but obviously they’ll have different roles.”
Watching the Yellowjackets play, it’s obvious they believe in their coach and his ideas. They fly around the court, and no opponent is safe with the ball in his hands.
Lippi, Gragnani’s mentor, came out on top in last week’s head-to-head matchup. Berkely played St. Ignatius in the first round of the Chris Vontoure Classic at De La Salle High, and the San Francisco school came out on top by five points. But Lippi was clearly impressed with what he saw of his student’s team.
“He’s got the kids playing with real intensity,” Lippi said. “Most teams give in when they’re behind, but his kids just wouldn’t give up.”
That intensity starts in practice.
“Our practices are like wars now, much tougher than last year,” Riordan said. “Coach tells us to play like we don’t know each other, just like in a game.”
“They’ve all bought into the system,” Gragnani said. “Occasionaly a guy will slip a little, but I’d say they’re sold on the system.”