There’s a basketball renaissance brewing behind the gates of Cate School in Carpinteria.
Even with an enrollment of just under 300 students, the boarding school has long prided itself on strong athletic programs to supplement an academic environment that strives to cultivate independent thinkers.
Through the early stages of the 2019-2020 season, the boys’ basketball team has held its own against some of the larger public schools in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
“In my interview at Cate School, I told our athletic director that I wanted to be able to play with these big public schools,” said head coach Andrew Gil, who is in his fifth season leading the program. “This year, it’s been fun. We’ve already beat a couple of them.”
At the Nordhoff tournament, the Rams captured victories over Rio Mesa, a school with more than 2,000 students, and Pacifica, which tops 3,000. Gil’s vision for the program is beginning to come into focus.
“My first year at Cate, we had barely enough players to field a varsity and a JV team,” Gil said. “This year, we actually fielded three teams, and we had over 50 guys try out for three levels.”
Such progress comes despite the many hurdles that other high school programs do not encounter. For instance, Cate players don’t participate in a traditional off-season, which for many schools includes spring and summer leagues.
“Every year when I walk into the school, I have no idea who is going to be here, I have no idea who is injured, and I have no idea who did what over the summer,” said Gil with a chuckle. “A lot of these guys, in years past, wouldn’t touch a ball after basketball season. Now these guys are playing club. They’re going and finding teams and working on their own.”
The onus for skill development falls primarily on each individual player, which captains Khadim Pouye, Thomas Nettesheim, and Ethan Ng take very seriously. The three seniors were not highly touted recruits brought in to lift the program to new heights. They are scrappy student athletes with nuanced worldviews who simply love the game and have developed accordingly.
“I first played basketball for my middle school team at Crane School in Montecito,” said Pouye, whose father teaches French at Cate. “I never thought I’d become a captain for any high school team. I’ve made a lot of improvement. I was really bad back then, so definitely a lot of growth.”
Originally from Senegal, Pouye moved to the Santa Barbara area when he was 6 years old. He is the most physically gifted player on the team, with a chiseled 6′1″ frame and ample strength and quickness to impose his will on the court.
The Rams finished first place at the recent Fillmore tournament, where Pouye was named MVP after scoring 21 points in the final against Trinity Classical Academy — that includes his 16 fourth-quarter points that sparked a thrilling comeback. In his fourth season as a varsity player, it’s fair to say that Pouye is not a bad player anymore.
Nettesheim is perhaps the most experienced player on the roster. The Ventura resident started playing with 805 Basketball Club in the 4th grade and has been hooked ever since. Like Pouye, Nettesheim has been on the varsity team since his freshman year and is a pillar of the program, and his ability to battle inside allows Cate to compete with bigger teams.
Last season, after being named MVP of the Ojai Valley Classic tournament, Nettesheim tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus on the very next practice after returning from winter break. “I was obviously really bummed out to miss my junior season, because we were playing well,” Nettesheim said. “I’m just so happy to be out here and be able to play because I’ve never had it taken away from me for that long. Now that I’m back out here, it’s just a blessing.”
Grizzled vets like Nettesheim may prove to be the missing pieces of the Cate puzzle for 2020. The Rams fell just short of a league championship last season, narrowly defeated by rival Carpinteria in the quarterfinals of the CIF-SS Division 5A playoffs. Said Nettesheim, “If we don’t win league, our season is a failure in our eyes, no matter what we do in playoffs.”
The third captain is senior forward Ethan Ng, who was born in San Francisco but spent his formative years in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He came to Cate as a sophomore with high expectations for himself as a player, and he has settled in as a leader and key contributor on the court after a bit of a slow start.
“I didn’t make the [varsity] team my first year, due to a myriad of reasons, including transfer rules, the fit of the team, and my relationship with the coach,” said Ng. “I didn’t do a good job of establishing myself, but on JV I had a lot of fun and learned how to be a leader.”
At 6′2″ with a sweet shooting stroke, Ng can stretch the floor and guard multiple positions. He relishes the underdog role when playing against larger schools.
“Having the underdog mentality is a good thing, even though, comparatively, we have wealthy kids and we have good lives,” Ng said. “But the small-school thing is what helps us a lot because some teams do underestimate us. I feel like that’s going to be to our advantage this year.”
With the support of such key contributors as Nkemka Chukwumerije, Parker May, and Mason Oetgen, the Rams stormed out of the gates with a 7-2 record to start the season. And there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Said Gil, “On any given night, we can have six or seven guys lead us, and that is what makes us a dangerous team.”