State championship preview: Clovis North looking to stun No. 1 seed Damien 

Clovis North boys’ basketball head coach Tony Amundsen speaks with the team during practice on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)

Tony Amundsen will have the wildest 24 hours of his life coming up next.

Yes, there is that game he needs to coach – No. 13 seed Clovis North, the Cinderella of California boys’ basketball, will battle No. 1 seed Damien of La Verne for the Division-I state title Friday night at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento at 8 p.m.

But before Amundsen can look forward to the biggest game of his head coaching career, he needs to look back at the path that brought him here

A big opportunity presented itself Thursday night in Visalia, where Amundsen will be inducted into the California Community College Men’s Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The dinner and his induction were originally scheduled for Thursday, March 12, 2020, the day that COVID-19 halted the world.

Amundsen waited two years to give his speech. He edited parts of it – some of what he planned to say is no longer relevant – but otherwise, Amundsen said he’s ready to reminisce on a junior college basketball career at Chabot College and an assistant coaching stop at Fresno City College, his players watching in the audience.

Afterward, the team will drive back up Highway 99 to Sacramento, stay the night in the state’s capital, and wake up Friday morning for the biggest game of their lives.

“It’s a lot in a short period of time,” Amundsen said. “Just getting prepared for that has been tough, but it’s going to be an honor to have my players, my family, and my coaching colleagues there. It’s going to be a special night.”

The Broncos are hoping there will be back-to-back special nights.

Clovis North (22-11) has already put together a special run in the D-I boys’ basketball state tournament, defeating No. 4 seed Miramonte in overtime, No. 5 Folsom, No. 1 Sacred Heart Prep, and No. 3 St. Ignatius in the span of eight days to reach the program’s first ever state championship game.

The cherry on top – all of those wins were on the road.

At the last practice of the season Thursday, players laughed and shared which student sections were the wildest during their state run. 

“We are the underdogs,” said senior Niko Jones. “We come in ready to play, because of the other team’s student section.”

Niko’s dad, assistant coach John Jones, started practice by laying bright blue tape on the court beyond the three-point line. The Broncos will play on an NBA court Friday, which means the team practiced from NBA three-point range.

The stage will be bigger in Sacramento, and so will the competition. Damien (31-4) is led by 6-foot-8 senior forward Kaleb Smith, who committed to UC Riverside in December. 6-foot-4 senior point guard RJ Smith and 6-foot-8 junior center Jimmy Oladokun present more challenges size-wise for a much smaller Clovis North team.

“[Damien is] very good, but again, we said it from Day 1 in the state playoffs, there are no bad teams left,” Amundsen said. “Everybody’s good… That’s why we played a tough schedule, to get us ready, so that when we do play against a team like [Damien], we’re not shocked. We won’t be shocked.”

Clovis North played both of the Open Division boys’ basketball finalists in December, defeating NorCal champion Modesto Christian, 77-56. The Amundsen-less Broncos lost to SoCal champion Corona Centennial, 89-28, in a game created by cancellations at the Classic at Damien tournament. 

They were also battle-tested in the Tri-River Athletic Conference, which produced Open NorCal semifinalist Clovis West, and throughout their run to the D-I NorCal title.

Sophomore point guard Connor Amundsen, son of head coach Tony, has stepped up for the Broncos in the state playoffs. He led the team with 21, 15, 27, and 21 points in four wins. He’s the leading scorer this season with 17.2 points per game.

But the strength of Clovis North is depth. Sophomore guard Jordan Espinoza has knocked down his floaters and layups, averaging 11.7 points per game, and defended well, too, with a team-leading 2.5 steals and 1.5 pass deflections per game.

Junior forward Jaylen Bryant has been the Broncos’ rim protector with two blocks per game, to go along with 10 points per game. Jones, freshman Loukas Jones, and junior Christian Calvillo have provided two-way production with 3-point shooting and defense, and junior Nasr Chaudhary has emerged on the defensive end as well.

All the long hours of practice and many miles traveling to out-of-town tournaments and road playoff games led up to one final practice Thursday. As the players boarded the vans, the Clovis North marching band, fans, and students greeted them with confetti and cheers.

A Clovis Unified School District police officer escorted the team vans off campus as they paraded through a frontage road. Then, the Broncos were off – the No. 13 seeded road warriors – to shock the state in Sacramento.

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.