Yreka basketball coach Cliff Blakely guides men’s team to playoffs

Nearly three years ago, Cliff Blakely was preparing the Mount Shasta boys’ basketball team for a postseason that would culminate in a state finals appearance at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. That same season, the Yreka Miners ended an 11-16 campaign with an 80-65 playoff loss to Oroville.

Blakely, who coached the Bears for seven seasons, retired after Mount Shasta’s one-man squad graduated. The McCloud native and basketball lifer didn’t take off for a bigger program, but went to coach a college team in Siskiyou County.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Miners were without a coach and the administration called Blakely to gauge his interest.

“Their coach had wanted out and the AD was a guy I played against in the City League and he asked if I could come and have a look, Blakely said on Friday, a day after a loss of two points at the end of the regular season against U -Preparation. “I knew it had been years since they had any success. I had played against them and being from the region, I knew Yreka basketball and I wondered why they didn’t play better?

“I took it as a challenge”

And while the 2021-22 Miners team didn’t write a Hollywood script in which they go undefeated in a run to the state finals, Yreka posted its second straight regular season in the MaxPreps era (since 2006).

Blakely guided Yreka’s side to a 9-0 mark in a truncated 2020-21 season last year and has the miners at 14-12 (including 7-3 in Northern Athletic League play ) behind solid play by seniors Matthew McEwen, Bryce Chapman and Slade Crawford, and 6-foot-5 junior transfer Nathan Kephart.

Yreka enters the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Division IV North Section playoffs and set up a second-round match Friday against No. 5 Colusa.

The Miners earned their first playoff win since the early 2000s by defeating Colusa 63-51. The Yreka boys next face U-Prep in the third round of the playoffs at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Redding.

And while this year’s process needed time to take hold, McEwen said the difference was Blakely.

“I think it’s practice,” said McEwen, a captain with Chapman. “We could see the change in mentality. He doesn’t pamper us. He is direct.

Blakely was born and raised in McCloud, playing for the Loggers and then the College of the Siskiyous before passing up a chance to play at Sacramento State. He instead went to the US Forest Service as a firefighter.

He coached in the area for years – taking a 1986 McCloud team within a game of the state finals, getting to the finals with the Bears and coaching his two sons, Daylon and Preston.

McEwen said the workouts are where the miners have made the greatest progress.

“In practice, he knows how to break us down and put us back together,” McEwen said.

A cool customer during matches, Blakely said there were always tweaks and things to tweak during the competition, but it was time for him to appreciate his team’s work.

“I feel like we win and lose in training,” the coach said. “That’s where I’ll make my cries. If we didn’t finish it by game time, maybe we should have had better training.

There’s no doubt that Blakely and the Miners will double down on practice before Friday’s game against the Warriors or Redhawks. Especially after feeling like he let one get away in the season-ending loss to U-Prep.

Twice in the fourth quarter, Yreka managed to even the score against the Panthers 49-47 (also undefeated in NAL play). But due to good defense from U-Prep and some negligence from the Miners, they lost four or five possessions in the second half of the fourth quarter to turnovers.

“We know what we’re capable of and we just didn’t perform last night,” McEwen said. “We made mistakes at the end and it cost us dearly.”

Blakely likes his chances with captains McEwen and Bryce Chapman leading the team.

“Matt, he’s just non-stop…he’s going to keep picking on you throughout the game,” the coach said. “He’s got a good shot and can use both hands. Early in the season , we used it a lot in isolation.

“Bryce is just stable. He plays very well in defense and rebounds. He does everything I ask. I have to get on top of him to shoot the ball.

Both Blakely and McEwen pointed to the January 4 beating by North Medford as a turning point in the season. Yreka entered the final pre-league game at 6-8 and saw the Black Tornado put 100 in the Miners’ own gymnasium in the 53-point loss.

“North Medford really beat us,” the coach said. “But a little light came on and I think they realized ‘We can be very good if we want to.’ It was the start.”

McEwen called it a “wake-up call”.

“We weren’t used to being beaten so badly,” he said.

And then the miners started waking up.

They started NAL play three days later with a 12-point road loss at West Valley before road wins at Central Valley and Anderson, then ran into the buzzsaw U-Prep. After the loss to the Panthers – who finished the NAL game undefeated – Yreka ran five straight, including an 18-point win over West Valley.

“Last year we knew we were going to be good and I think we surprised a lot of people,” McEwen said. “We all know what we are capable of and we believe we can beat anyone.”

Aaron Williams is the national editor and volleyball editor at MaxPreps. The former Record Searchlight sportswriter has been active in the North State sports community for more than 20 years as a writer and coach at the youth and high school levels. He enjoys spending time golfing or hiking with his partner Michelle and their mastiff, Maui.