SALINAS – The challenges were immense. Being humbled never feels good. The fortitude of a powerful basketball program was under scrutiny.
Whether it belonged on the same hardwood as some of its preseason opponents wasn’t a concern to Palma coach Kelley Lopez.
What the veteran coach was looking for was progress, improvement and how his youthful group would handle adversity.
“What we learned is we’re resilient and we want to compete,” Lopez said. “Those are positives. It was either this or play teams that don’t make you better. What would you rather do?
The punishment that Palma absorbed in a 4-8 preseason was rewarded Tuesday as the defending Gabilan Division champions opened league play, using a big second half to post a 64-48 win over Alvarez.
“If we don’t have those games in the preseason, maybe we do not get to this point and this game is a lot closer,” Lopez said.
For what it’s worth, the Chieftains are 24-1 over the last three league seasons. Still eight losses in non-league play raised an eyebrow or two.
Palma fell by 59 points to De La Salle in its opener, was beaten by 44 in its own tournament by Whitney, and dropped its last two games in the St. Francis Holiday Classic in Mountain View.
“The schedule was brutal,” said Lopez, who took the Chieftains to a State Division IV title game in 2016. “But we learned what we wanted to learn.”
It’s a retooling campaign for Palma, who returned just one starter from last year’s Central Coast Section Division IV finalist team in Charlie Kosta.
Asking Kosta to carry the offensive burden wasn’t going to be enough, particularly when teams began homing in on the senior sharpshooter.
“Charlie is so dynamic,” Lopez said. “But it can’t be Charlie each night. We have guys that can put the ball in the basket. We have to continue to share the ball.”
Lopez acknowledged that with such a young team with little experience, he was worried about their confidence until last week.
“We had such a good week in a big tournament,” Lopez said. “We went 1-2. But look at who we were playing? We got better. Those programs don’t take nights off. That’s what we learned.”
The Chieftains looked more like a team prepared to defend their title Tuesday against Alvarez, as three different players scored in double digits, anchored by Kianno Montano.
The sophomore has begun to find his rhythm of late, averaging 12 points a game over his last three games, with Drew Molinari and Kosta also finishing in double figures.
“I think we showed tonight that we’ve gotten better,” Lopez said. “We’ve made tweaks. We’ve got a ton of room to grow. Besides Charlie, we don’t have a lot of experience.”
There are no nights off in an ultra-competitive Gabilan Division as rival Salinas comes to the Palma gym for a Friday night battle — a team the Chieftains have beaten five straight times dating back to 2019.
“Listen, everyone wants to beat us whether we’re 12-0 or 4-8,” Lopez said. “Everyone wants to take their shots at us. We understand it. We feel our program is different.”
Finding that chemistry on the court is what Lopez used the preseason for. Freshman JJ Saucedo has earned a spot in the starting along with Thomas Nunes and Blake Butler filing roles in the rotation.
“These guys play with energy, give us a little toughness,” Lopez said. “It may not be pretty, it may not show up in the books. But Thomas and Blake have given us things we needed.”
The next step in the journey that Lopez preached to his players after Tuesday’s game is do you want to continue to be successful?
“It’s tough,” Lopez said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t played a ton of important basketball minutes. When the pressure gets going, do you fold, or do you get better?”
Based on its league opener, Palma appears to be prepared for what awaits them in the Gabilan Division. Five of its eight losses in non-league play came from powers outside the CCS.
“It’s gotten better, but I don’t think it was ever bad,” Lopez said. “It was more about learning. It’s going to be tough. There are challenges ahead. But we’re trending in the right direction.”