Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

The Sonora Wildcats boys' basketball team will kick off their last season in the Valley Oak League at Columbia College's Oak Pavilion Saturday, and will honor former legendary head basketball coach Rick Francis.

The Wildcats freshmen, junior varsity and varsity squads will play Downey, of Modesto, at 1, 2:30 and 4 p.m.

A special retirement ceremony for Francis, who lead the Sonora Wildcats as head coach for the past 37 years and served for 42 years in the program, will be held before tip-off of the varsity game.

Columbia head coach Rob Hoyt and first-year Sonora head coach Dan Dona, both Wildcat graduates and former Francis players, got together to commemorate Francis' legacy.

"We thought it would be a really cool event," Dona said. "We thought it could be a lot of fun. Overall, a really enjoyable moment for Rob and myself to honor Rick for all the years he has put in for so many people. We want to send off Coach the right way, giving him his due for his hard work."

The Claim Jumpers cap off the celebration, and night, against College of Marin at 6, where Francis is now an assistant coach for Columbia.

A reception will follow at The Peppery where former players can give thanks.

While at Sonora, Francis guided the Wildcats to 31 winning seasons, including 10 Valley Oak League titles. He won a Sac-Joaquin Section Championship during the 1991-92 season, and appeared in two others while making 29 playoff appearances.

In all, Francis collected 659 victories to just 396 losses en route to being the winningest head coach in section history. In VOL Play, he won 63 percent of his games.

Continuing Francis' excellence and tradition will be Dona, a longtime assistant coach in the Sonora Wildcats basketball program.

Dona spent 19 years coaching at Sonora, and will enter his 20th season as head coach.

"It's kind of fun," Dona said. "I am excited. It's amazing at how much a varsity coach has to do. I'm learning a lot as I go, but being with the kids and making all the calls is nice, exciting."

It helps that Dona has a dedicated crew of assistant coaches to rely on. Justin Fowler, a former player for Dona, will serve as a varsity assistant, and Lloyd Longeway, Jimmy Dockett Jr. and Scott Patterson is in charge of the lower levels.

A strong senior class headlines the Wildcats on the hardwood in Dona's first year.

Will Collamer, a 5-foot-9 senior point guard, is showing promise after a standout performance against Ripon in last Saturday's scrimmage.

"He's making really good strides, becoming a wonderful young man," Dona said. "I see him making good strides in his leadership skills. He's really aggressive. I expect some good things out of him. Really pleased with how he's coming along this year."

At shooting guard, senior Matt Howard possesses the athleticism to make an impact.

"Real quick, very athletic," Dona said. "He jumps well. When he relaxes, he really plays well. When he's confident, the 3-ball falls for him."

If Gabe Runte, a 6-foot-5 senior, can stay injury free, his presence will be an asset.

"I hoping that he will be able to overcome his injury to be able to play for us this year at forward," Dona said. "He's real athletic, especially when he's healthy. He works hard."

Other seniors who will battle for court time are Kade Barajas, Russel Wilson and Kyle Wolfe.

Wolfe is a good shooter, and Barajas is playing basketball this season after sitting out as a junior.

"He's a really tough kid," Dona said of Barajas. "He plays hard. A small forward that can guard people. A spark plug that plays good defense."

"I just really like the chemistry with these seniors," Dona added.

Pushing Collamer at point guard is junior Scott Liggett, who helped lead the Wildcat junior varsity to a VOL title last season.

Junior 6-foot-3 forward Thomas Nelson may have the best technique of any player on the Sonora roster.

"He's probably the most fundamental guy on the team," Dona said. "He's really strong, rebounds well, understands the game. He should get quite a bit of playing time."

The most versatile Wildcat is Kahale Warring, a 6-foot-5 forward. Warring helped lead the Sonora water polo team to the Division II Sac-Joaquin Section Championship semifinals as a goalkeeper earlier this month. It was the best run in program history.

"He should play big for us," Dona said. "Really strong, athletic junior. He can play any position on the court. Once he gets it strong mentally, he can take over a game. Really tough guy to stop in the paint. I think he's going to have a really good year. He rebounds well, especially on the offensive end. He will be a big part of our team."

Juniors Peyton Camacho, Brandon Cogburn, Carter Denton and Ryan Dies are also expected to split time on the court.

"I have some juniors coming up that have a good opportunity to get some playing time as well as start," Dona said.