They call him Jace “Gym Rat” Decker for good reason. Decker, 18, a senior at Sonora High School and a member of the varsity basketball team, has spent more hours than anyone can count in Bud Castle gym. Much of it by himself. Shooting, dribbling, breezing down the court for layups. Perfecting his game. Working toward a goal.
Now it’s paying off.
Decker has committed to play college basketball at Cal Lutheran, a private, liberal arts university in Thousand Oaks. Getting there was part of his plan all along.
Decker was in middle school when his mom would take him down the street in his neighborhood to play on a nearby basketball hoop.
“We didn’t have a place at home for him to play,” said Linda Daniels.
When it was time for swimming lessons at Sonora Sports and Fitness, Decker would arrive early and spend the time in the gym.
“We’ve got our money’s worth out of Sonora Sports and Fitness,” Daniels said with a laugh.
Decker eventually dropped the swimming classes to focus on basketball.
He went on to play at Sonora Elementary and all four years at Sonora High.
That’s where he earned his nickname.
He got to school by 7 a.m. Someone would unlock the gym for him so he could practice for an hour before first bell. He’d return at recess and lunch. Then again after school for two more hours.
“I would just carry my ball around school. Not too fashionable,” said Decker. “But I didn’t really care.”
When he wasn’t on the court in Sonora, he was on a traveling basketball team. He played in Dallas, Kansas City, New York and Paris.
“It was a good experience because basketball was different in every area,” he said.
Last season Decker helped the Sonora Wildcats to a 12-0 record and the Mother Lode League title and the No. 1 seed in the CIF-Sac Joaquin Division IV playoffs.
He capped his high school career as the league’s co-MVP.
The honor was no surprise to his coach Lloyd Longeway.
“He put in a lot of time and work on his game. He was our leading scorer on the season,” said Longeway. “He put in a lot of work outside of practice. He really wanted to see his team do well.”
The Wildcats had a bye in the first round of the division playoffs before dropping their second round game to Foothill (Sacramento).
They extended their season after getting an at-large spot in the CIF State Championships, winning their first game 78-76 over Lick-Wilmerding.
Decker had a stellar showing. He had a season-high 34 points, 25 of which came in the second.
He had six three-pointers, too.
While Decker dabbled in other sports, the basketball court always felt like a calling of sorts.
“I like the routine of it,” he said.
When he’s shooting a basketball, life’s noises fade away, and what matters becomes a bit more clear.
Like his mom.
“She’s been one of my main motivations. I knew how much she cared for me and how hard she worked for me,” said Decker.
Daniels is a respiratory therapist who commutes to Manteca.
College was always part of Decker’s life plan. He knew basketball could help get him there and ease some of the financial burden.
But it wasn’t just his skills on the court that drew the attention of Cal Lutheran. Decker has a 4.1 cumulative GPA.
Juggling school and sports has been a matter of focus for Decker.
“It’s how you manage your time,” he said “You can’t be messing around in class or after school.”
Decker said his circle of family and friends have also been an important part of his success.
His stepfather Daryl is one of them. He’s been to every game possible, said Decker.
“I really love him and respect him and everything he has done for me,” said Decker.
And there’s Decker’s girlfriend, Niki Roberts, often on the sidelines taking photos, supporting him with the rest of his family.
Before Decker heads to school in August he plans to attend a few basketball camps to prepare.
“I always set pretty high expectations,” he said. “I don’t want to sit the bench.”
Decker plans to major in biochemistry or chemistry. He’d like to be an anesthesiologist.
“I’m really interested in helping people,” he said.
College ball will likely be the end of his playing career, too.
“I think I can have a bigger impact off the court,” he said. “I think it would be really cool to use my interests to help others.”