Kael Rillie
Dos Pueblos senior Kael Rillie, seen here in a game earlier this season, come from a family tradition of basketball, following an older brother as a Charger. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk file photo)

It has been over two decades since the Dos Pueblos High boys basketball program has seen a team reach the CIF final and more than three since a team has won.

But that all changes Friday night when the Chargers host Western of Anaheim in the CIF-SS Division 4A championship game. It will be the Chargers’ first finals appearance since 1995, when they finished as 3A runners-up.

For head coach Joe Zamora, this is the first time one of his teams has gone past the quarterfinals, let alone a championship game.

“It’s the first time we’ve been to the championship in a while. I’ve been to the quarterfinals three times and so it means a lot to me because it’s my alma mater,” Zamora said.

“Growing up, I’ve seen the banners on the walls of the gym and I know a lot of alumni really connected within the community now growing up here, and so to be able to have this opportunity, it just means a lot to me and my family. They all know what this means.”

Zamora isn’t the only one with alumni ties to the program. Star seniors Joaquin Riker and Kael Rillie both had brothers who attended Dos Pueblos High School and played on the varsity basketball squad.

For them, the opportunity to accomplish something their own brothers didn’t means a lot.

“Zamora has talked about that. We have had siblings go through the basketball program, and he said after we reached our 20th win, ‘you get bragging rights.’ And now this is one step either of our brothers have gotten,” Rillie laughed.

“It’s good to have bragging rights and it’s good to just joke around about it.”

But following the laughs, Rillie said he appreciates the role his family has played in his own basketball career.

His father, John Rillie, is an assistant coach at UCSB, which has won over 100 games since he got there with new head coach Joe Pasternack five years ago – including a Big West title.

“Basketball is something that we have always done,” Kael Rillie said. “We all play basketball because we enjoy doing it, but having my brother go through the program and then me getting to follow through definitely brings lots of confidence to me, as even as a freshman and when I was younger, because I was following such a good player,” Rillie said.

Dos Pueblos has been through a lot of adversity throughout their playoff run. Zamora said in the beginning of the year, he scheduled games against Division 1 schools, in hopes of preparing the team down the line — a move that clearly has paid dividends.

But even when league came around, the Chargers consistently had players lost due to COVID and even Zamora himself, who sat out the majority of the second half of league play.

“Almost the whole team got COVID the week before we were supposed to play Santa Barbara and San Marcos,” Riker said.

“Being through that, it was tough, but we got to come back and I think we’re all just grateful that we got to have a season. And now, at least I can speak for myself, I no longer take for playing granted anymore, because you never know what could happen. So just go out there and play a game like it’s gonna be your last.”

It won’t quite be the last game for the Chargers this season, as the team has an automatic bid to the state championship.

But for these seniors, including Krue Court, the opportunity to win a championship for DP at home in Sovine Gymnasium means a lot.

“My brother played here, and getting support from him has been great, but even alumni that I have never met come up to me and say, ‘Good luck this season.’ It means a lot,” Riker said.

“There’s a little pressure for sure, but I am glad to be in this position, and I feel confident that me and the rest of this team know what this is riding on. There is pressure but I think that just converts to excitement.”

Everyone has since recovered from the COVID pandemic and will be suited  up Friday, but the Chargers will also welcome back sophomore guard Christian Perez, who got hurt in December and is cleared to play Friday night.

“Our guys were so ecstatic that we found out he’s clearly 100 percent to play,” Zamora said.

“At the right time, he won’t come in and start but we’re a complete team now and we feel really confident and prepared for tomorrow.”

Zamora said the key to winning Friday night will be finding a way to stop Western’s Ahmad Hammouri, the team’s senior 6’3” shooting guard.

“He takes about 75 to 80 percent of their shots in the game. He’s not afraid to shoot from 24 and he can attack a basket,” Zamora said.

“We have seen players like him before but we know we need to stop him. … But I don’t think I need to preach to them too much. The guys all know each other, they have played together and they trust each other.”

Regardless of the outcome, Zamora said this season has meant a lot to him — coaching players from families he’s known his whole life to a championship game, and also a step in the right direction for the program.

“It means a lot because you see the growth both on the court and especially off of it,” Zamora said.

“We went through some tough times but they bought into our program, they stayed the course, and especially Rillie and Riker, even when things weren’t going our way, they never pointed fingers. They came out to practice every day with a smile on their face, encouraged everyone and were there.”