Clovis West prepares for Open Division boys’ title clash with St. Joseph

Clovis West junior Kaleb Jackson goes to the rim during practice on Friday, February 25, 2022. The Golden Eagles face the St. Joseph Knights for the Open Division boys’ basketball championship on Saturday. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)

Clovis West, the established power in boys’ basketball led by a legendary head coach.

St. Joseph, the brazen newcomer to the Central Section looking to defend its Open Division championship on the road.

Oh boy, this will be fun.

For only the second time since St. Joseph joined the section in 2018, the Golden Eagles will face the Knights with the 2022 Central Section Open Division boys’ basketball title on the line. The game will tip off shortly after 6:00 p.m. Saturday at a sold-out Clovis West gym.

The first time the two schools met on the hardwood, St. Joseph held home-court advantage in a hotly contested Open Division semifinal last June. The Knights emerged victorious, 87-83, traveled to Fresno one week later, and defeated top seed San Joaquin Memorial to win the program’s first Central Section title.

Vance Walberg, in his 19th season overall as Clovis West head coach and sixth in his second stint, needed no reminder of the first meeting with St. Joseph. One day before the rematch, Walberg re-watched the film from the heartbreaking loss.

A big problem stood out to him – the little things.

“It’s going to come down to this: did we do the little things that we didn’t do last year?” Walberg said. “Do we box out? Do we not make that sloppy turnover and give them a breakaway? Do we get back and not let them make it on us? I think it’s going to be a heck of a game. I think it’s by far the best two teams in the section.”

A freshman making waves in Santa Maria

St. Joseph lost four of its five leading scorers from the 2020-21 season; Jincho Rivera, Sam Bazunga, Angel Ortiz, and Steven Vasquez graduated. But head coach Tom Mott reloaded in a big way with 6-foot-5 freshman Tounde Yessoufou. The dynamic forward leads the Knights with 26.7 points, 12 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game.

Yessoufou exploded onto the Central Section basketball scene in late November. He abruptly cut short his first ever high school game by tearing down the rim on a dunk attempt. In his second career game, he scored 44 points against Central.

Mott, in his 13th season at the helm for St. Joseph, spoke earlier this year about the unexpected emergence of Yessoufou as one of the state’s top freshmen.

“I’m not going to say it’s a complete shock, but when he got here in June, we went to a tournament in Arizona at the end of June, and he maybe averaged four or five points a game the first five games,” Mott said.

Mott said the summer tournament led him to believe Yessoufou was a “project” player who could contribute down the road. But he improved in fall practices, especially in size. Yessoufou bulked up from 175 to 195 pounds and fully adapted to the United States after arriving from the country Benin in West Africa. He grew especially close with returning point guard Dre Roman.

Suddenly, once the season started, Yessoufou was breaking rims and throwing down dunks.

“During games, my assistant coaches and I will look at each other after he makes a play,” Mott said. “I’ll be like, ‘Did he just do that?’”

Yessoufou is the unofficial mayor of St. Joseph’s “Dunk City” as he leads the team with 78 dunks. He has formed a three-headed attack with Roman (14.2 ppg) and 6-foot-5 guard Luis Marin (12.6 ppg, 5.8 apg).

The Knights, at 27-2 and ranked No. 12 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, defeated Clovis North in the Open Division semifinal last Saturday, 69-64. They enter Saturday’s title game on a 19-game winning streak.

D is the key for Clovis West

As practice ended Friday, Walberg asked his players to raise their hands if they won a Central Section championship.

Only one did.

Tyus Parrish-Tillman played a key role in Fresno Christian’s Division-V title victory in 2020. Then a sophomore, Parrish-Tillman led the team with 23 points as the Eagles fended off the Fowler Redcats, 76-73, in double overtime.

Now a senior and now a Golden Eagle, Parrish-Tillman is averaging a double-double with 15.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward will be tasked with protecting the rim against an athletic, up-tempo St. Joseph offense.

Parrish-Tillman already had his game plan for grounding St. Joseph’s most high-flying playmaker, Yessoufou.

“Obviously [I’m] not letting him go to his right because that’s his dominant hand,” Parrish-Tillman said. “If we just keep him away from that, we should be fine.”

Offensively, Clovis West is led by junior guard Issac Martinez (15.9 ppg), Parrish-Tillman, and Jackson Young (12.2 ppg). But the Golden Eagles’ pressure defense may prove the difference-maker, said senior guard Trey Carr.

“I feel like our defense is the best in the section,” Carr said. “Ball pressure is crucial, and that’s what got us this far.”

Carr has 60 deflections and 48 steals this season. Martinez leads the team in both categories with 105 deflections and 89 steals.

A full and loud gym will make the pressure defense even more difficult for St. Joseph to attack. Carr said he never experienced anything like the packed gym that watched Clovis West dispatch San Joaquin Memorial, 83-69, last Saturday in the Open Division semifinal.

But the crowd will be just as large, if not larger, for Clovis West-St. Joseph, Part II.

“We expect our student section to be packed,” Carr said

It will not be the Selland Arena atmosphere that Parrish-Tillman experienced while winning his first Central Section title, but something more intimate and advantageous for Clovis West

The Golden Eagles earned home-court advantage with the No. 1 seed in the Open Division at 29-1 overall.

That single loss on an otherwise perfect record stings at Parrish-Tillman, who came to Clovis West with two goals.

“I was hoping we didn’t lose a game but sadly, we did,” Parrish-Tillman said, “but I came here to win the Open Division.”

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.