The goal for the Columbia Claim Jumpers is to go 28-0. Well, the Jumpers couldn’t have asked for a better way to begin the season and their quest to not only capture a Central Valley Conference championship, but possibly a state title.
Columbia’s season got underway with two home games as part of the Columbia Classic at Oak Pavilion. On Saturday, the Jumpers beat Folsom Lake 82-60. On Sunday night, Columbia had no problem knocking off Marin 89-70.
“We did a good job,” Columbia head coach Rob Hoyt said about the first two games of the season. “The effort was great and I thought our defense was great for the first time out. Offensively we were good for the majority of the time. Of course there are things you need to improve on and work on, but it’s only the second game. We’re glad to be 2-0 and having to address those things and not 1-1 or 0-2.”
For sophomore Noel Alexander, the first two games of the season meant more than just the start of a new year. Not only did Alexander miss all of the 2020-21 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he also watched the majority of the 2019-20 season from the bench with a torn ACL.
“It’s refreshing,” a smiling Alexander said about returning to the court after his injury. “It's been a long time coming with a lot of rehab and a lot of negative thoughts through my mind about not being able to come back to play, but I’m finally here. We’ve got a good group and we are winning.”
In the opening game against Folsom Lake, the Jumpers started hot and outscored their opponents 52-24 in the opening 20 minutes. Although Columbia got outscored 36-30 in the second half, the lead that the Jumpers built early in the game was enough of a cushion to not cause any fret.
For it being not only the first game of the season, but the first game in nearly two years, Hoyt wasn’t sure how long it would take for his players to relax and find their rhythm. He was pleasantly surprised by the intensity they showed him early against Folsom Lake.
“I anticipated some jitters and it was full-on prime Mike Tyson and when the bell rings, you’re in for a bad night,” Hoyt said. “I thought we had that in us, but I didn’t know if that was going to happen or not. We have an attitude about us in the way we hold ourselves and I think that really showed this weekend.”
Isaiah Jones led Columbia with 14 points; Marcus McCutchen had 13 points; Tahj-Malik Campbell scored 12; while Alexander and Aurrion Harris each added eight points in the win.
The only thing concerning Hoyt about the matchup with Marin was how his players would react to playing back-to-back games. The Columbia players didn’t seem fazed by two games in two days and a solid rotation helped alleviate any possible fatigue.
“I wanted to come into it as healthy as possible and leave as healthy as we entered and I think we did,” Hoyt said.
Just like they did against Folsom Lake, the Jumpers came out on fire against Marin. With only five minutes played in the first half, Columbia built an impressive 17-3 lead, which was pushed to 29-5 with 12:16 to play in the half.
“In practice, coach (Hoyt) emphasizes defense a lot and that’s what we’ve been working on,” Jones said. “I feel like we trust each other enough to rotate to all the right spots.”
In both of the first two games of the season, Columbia jumped out to big leads, which eliminated much of the stress that comes with playing a 40-minute game. Hoyt knows not every contest will be that way and is confident that his team will be able to battle through any situation, regardless of the score.
“I don’t know how important it is with this group,” Hoyt said about having an early lead. “Obviously it helps and in a perfect world, that’s what you’d like. We’ll see when that doesn’t happen; when we are tied at halftime, or we’re down, or it’s closer. We’ll learn a lot about ourselves in that moment when adversity hits and we find out what kind of team we are.”
Columbia continued to add points to the scoreboard, but perhaps the most devastating shots came from Jones. After a basket from sophomore Mitch Prevost to give the Jumpers a 45-22 lead with 1:29 left in the half, Jones drained three consecutive shots from downtown. The last of which came right as the buzzer sounded and Columbia went into the locker room with a 54-24 lead.
“It felt pretty good hitting those three’s heading into the second half,” Jones said. “I got good passes from Jon (Mayben) and Mitch (Prevost) on those plays.”
Columbia’s offensive attack slowed down in the second half and the Jumpers were outscored 46-35. But like the night before, with such a big lead, there was no cause for concern. Freshman Jon Mayben had a strong final 20 minutes, as he scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, which included draining two baskets from behind the arc.
Jones led Columbia with 17 points; Prevost scored 14; sophomore Deshawn Bartley and Campbell each scored 13; and Mayben finished the night with 12 points.
Columbia is 2-0 but still has a long way to go before the season comes to an end. Yet for Hoyt, there’s something special about game days and after missing so much time because of COVID-19, he couldn't be happier to be back on the bench coaching the Jumpers to victory.
“These are special days and days that should be cherished,” Hoyt said. “If you look at it in the totality of a year, we have guaranteed 28 games, which is a month's worth of games. You are spending the other 11 month’s worth of days working on your game and working on your craft. It’s an endless pursuit of mastering, of which you are never going to achieve. The joy and the drive is in that pursuit. On a day like today, on game day, it’s a great day. Today it's just a singular focus to be the best for your team and to go compete.”