MURRIETA — Oh and 10.
Russell Ham won't say he expected such a rocky start to his head coaching tenure in the Southwestern League, but Murrieta Mesa's founding coach is the first to say he knew what he was getting into.
He'd coached two years under Steve Tarabilda at Murrieta Valley and assisted another two years under Kurt Ruth at Vista Murrieta.
In other words, there were no surprise when he and the Rams embarked on their first varsity campaign a year ago.
"I knew it was going to be tough," Ham said last week. "Those are real good programs. There are a lot of good programs in this league. We knew right off the bat that this was going to be a battle.
"And I think everyone knew that first year was going to be a learning experience."
Guess the Rams fast learners.
Fresh off last year's winless campaign in the Southwestern League, Murrieta Mesa (17-10, 5-5) snapped out of a funk late last week, handing crosstown rival Vista Murrieta a 71-68 loss that helped the upstart Rams lock up third place and the school's first playoff berth for a major athletic program at the school. Ranked for much of the season in their division, the Rams will open the CIF Southern Section Division III-AAA playoffs Wednesday at Oxnard Rio Mesa (17-9), the second-place team out of the Pacific View League.
"It feels great — especially after coming off last year and not winning any league games in basketball," junior guard Khalil Sharpe said. "It's great for the program."
It also might be ahead of the curve for a program that fields just four seniors.
But the Rams showed plenty of promise during single-digit losses to Great Oak, Chaparral and Temecula Valley during the 2010-2011 campaign and then really started to click over the summer. The program was about to field its first seniors, including 6-foot-5 forward Nate Wright leading the way, and a talent class of junior guards — led by Sharpe, Trevon Session, Shane Staton and Chase Chambers — were about to come into their own.
Then Murrieta Mesa opened the season with a 49-47 victory over Fontana Summit, a state tournament runner-up last year, and expectations really started to rise.
"After our first win against Summit," Wright said, "the whole school was like OK, 'We have a good basketball team. We have something going good for us. We have a team that can win and possibly go to the playoffs.'
"Once we kept on winning, people started to see that Mesa can make some noise."
That noise included a 10-game winning streak that featured the program's first Southwestern League wins (over Great Oak and Chaparral) — a run thwarted only by a 63-62 overtime loss to perennial power Murrieta Valley. The Rams even had a chance to go up on the Nighthawks with 30 seconds left in regulation that game.
"Would that have been the shot heard 'round the world?" Ham asked. "I think so."
Murrieta Valley, of course, held on for the win. But the Rams — with an up-tempo offense and defense that sets itself apart in the Southwestern League — had officially served notice: They weren't anyone's punching bag anymore. In fact, when the Broncos upset the Nighthawks that same week, the three Murrieta schools shared first place in the Southwestern League with identical 3-1 records.
"They have good athletes, and when you have good athletes, anything can happen," said Murrieta Valley coach Steve Tarabilda, whose team later scored a 60-39 victory over the Rams. " ... Their team speed is probably the best in the league."
So much so that Ham ditched his preferred half-court sets in the middle of the season, letting his athletes do what they do best: Run and gun it.
"We just all use our athleticism," said Wright, who also leads the team with 7.8 rebounds per game. "Coach just lets us run. That's what we like to do. We score a lot of points off that, a lot of steals."
The Rams are averaging 61 points a game, with Wright (14.8), Staton (12.5) and Sharpe (10.0) all averaging in double figures, and Chambers (6.6 ppg, 4.1 rebounds per game and 2 steals per game) turning in key contributions all over the court. Session (4.6 ppg) and Braxton Smith (4.9 ppg), too, are turning in key minutes for a team eager to see what it can do in the playoffs.
"This has all been good for the school," said Sharpe, who starred along with Chambers for a football team that lost its last six games of the season. "And I think we can make some noise in the playoffs."