SONORA — Lloyd Longeway was unable to save his teaching job at Sonora High, but the second-year coach is committed to saving the Wildcats' basketball program.
Sonora has long been one of the Stanislaus District's top girls programs, going back to the 1980s when Gary Smith was winning league titles and taking the 'Cats deep into the playoffs. But it was a battle for survival last season, with Sonora suiting up as few as six players for some games.
Longeway has a full team this season, and both lower-level teams are unbeaten in the Valley Oak League, so he sees the program returning to its former prosperity.
"We didn't bring up freshmen and sophomores, feeling they would benefit from playing together," said Longeway, a health teacher who was laid off last summer. "A few might have come to varsity, but we made the decision to keep those teams strong."
It's a philosophy Longeway believes will pay dividends in the coming years, but it's not keeping the varsity from being competitive this season.
Sonora twice battled back from 10-point deficits Thursday before falling 53-45 to East Union, the three-time defending VOL champion.
Longeway's goal is to put Sonora (5-8, 0-2) in a position similar to EU (10-3, 2-0), one of the district's marquee programs. The Lancers have set the VOL standard under coach Jim Agostini's demanding, yet positive instruction.
Longeway has a similar demeanor, but his 'Cats lacked the offense to knock off The Bee's No. 3-ranked team.
Compare that to a year ago, when having two players on the bench counted as depth.
A small turnout last year, combined with injuries and players moving during the season, forced Longeway to play short-handed. There were a few games when Sonora was just a foul or two from finishing with fewer than five players on the court.
He had 10 girls in uniform Thursday and is waiting for two others to get healthy.
"The school has been losing enrollment and some of the girls who left were players," he said. "We picked up a few who didn't play last year, so I believe we're coming back."
He'll have plenty to choose from next year, says sophomore coach Amy Santos.
"Keeping this group together will help the varsity because they'll have experience playing with each other," said Santos, who has been sending players to the varsity for nine years. "We run a similar program to the varsity, so the girls will know the offense and defense. That will give him the chance to work on other parts of their game.
"It can be a big jump, freshman to sophomore and then sophomore to varsity, and it's good to build their confidence as they're moving up."
Some of those sophomores likely will jump into the lineup next season, because junior guard Kelli Keefe will be one of the few players back from a senior-laden roster.
Despite the program's struggles, Keefe and the seniors nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season.
When Larissa Rosenfield hit a 12-footer with 6:02 left, it got Sonora within 41-39. But the rally drained Sonora, as EU — behind Lexy Pouz (19 points) and Shalone Jackson (16) — scored the next nine points to put the game away.
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at email@example.com or at 578-2300.