The Menlo-Atherton Bears have been a perennial contender under head coach Mike Molieri, and the run they put together in 2019 was one of their best during his tenure, especially considering that they had a roster that most coaches would have struggled with.
M-A became the second public school to win a game in the CCS Open Division, became the third team to sweep the PAL regular season and tournament since the league expanded its schedule before the 2012-13 season and won 24 games, the second-most since Molieri took over before that 2012-13 campaign. While the talent on the Bears’ roster was apparent, few coaches would have been able to get so much success out of such an undersized team, without a player over 6-foot-3 on the roster.
What made the Bears so effective was their style, combining team defense with selfless passing on offense. No player averaged over 15 points per game for M-A, but with a variety of players able to chip in and a defense that allowed just 46.3 points per game on the season, it was not only an efficient style of play but an aesthetically pleasing team, one that even earned the approval of Barry Bonds, a close friend of Molieri’s brother, Dan. Bonds was in attendance at M-A’s CCS Open Division Quarterfinal win over Serra, his alma mater, and told Molieri after the game that he loved the style with which his team played.
“I think what made us most successful was his focus on team defense,” said Will Beasley, who played for three years under Molieri. “We would spend a lot of time during practices working on being aggressive and he held us to a high standard.”
While most juggernaut teams have lapses over the course of the season, falling into trap games and occasionally playing down to competition, such bumps in the road were incredibly rare for the Bears, who only played four league games within 15 points and had three end with a running clock, plus a fourth in a PAL Semifinal win over Terra Nova. No game was too big or too small for the Bears, who played a fearless game and only lost by more than 10 points once, a 69-53 defeat to powerhouse Clovis West in the CIF Division I Tournament, a tremendously difficult draw for the Bears. Their seeding in the state tournament was a double-edged sword of sorts, a recognition of their achievements and a sign of respect but also a tremendous challenge against a monster team.
Even with two key pieces, point guard Justin Anderson and athletic sophomore Skyler Thomas, playing football well into December, the Bears got off to an impressive start, losing to eventual NorCal champion Logan by just six, Bellarmine by just ten and WCAL champion Mitty by a single point without the two instrumental pieces. After they joined the roster, M-A went nearly two and a half months without another loss, winning 20 in a row before finally falling to Sacred Heart Cathedral in the CCS Open Division Semifinals.
“He’s willing to be flexible with offensive strategies,” Beasley said of Molieri. “In my three years, our offense has been different every year to accommodate different players.”
No matter who was on the floor, Molieri was able to keep his team playing the same composed and refined style, rotating in a mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors. While the 2018-19 Bears had special chemistry, with Molieri and his assistants establishing a strong culture and system, there’s plenty of reason to expect that the pipeline will keep churning out impressive results for years to come. There’s been a great sense of continuity at Menlo-Atherton ever since Molieri took over, aided by his emphasis on communication.
“By the end of the year, our team was like a family,” Beasley said. “He wanted to connect with us and get to know us.”
Other coaches considered for this award include Mitty’s Tim Kennedy and Sacred Heart Cathedral’s Sean MacKay.