Home Sports Moreau Catholic’s Damari Milstead has risen to occasion

Moreau Catholic’s Damari Milstead has risen to occasion

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    Moreau Catholic’s Damari Milstead has risen to occasion

Photo: Samuel Stringer / MaxPreps

Moreau Catholic-Hayward senior Damari Milstead has guided to Mariners to 20 consecutive wins and a berth in the NorCal Division 2 title game.
Moreau Catholic-Hayward senior Damari Milstead has guided to Mariners to 20 consecutive wins and a berth in the NorCal Division 2 title game.

Photo: Samuel Stringer / MaxPreps

Moreau Catholic’s Damari Milstead has risen to occasion

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Moreau Catholic-Hayward senior Damari Milstead called it “brutal.” Coach Frank Knight had trouble sleeping and considered a leave of absence.

The Mariners, winners of 75 games over the previous three seasons, started the 2016-17 season 4-9 and were reeling.

“I had to look in the mirror and figure out how we could find a way,” Milstead said.

The simple solution was to put the burden on the 6-foot-2 point guard and let one of the most productive and successful high school players in Bay Area history figure out how to make the Mariners better.

The result: 20 consecutive wins, a third North Coast Section title in four years and a spot in the Northern California Division 2 title game Saturday against top-seeded St. Francis.

Though not particularly flashy or explosive, Milstead has put up big numbers and now can earn a second state-championship appearance and victory No. 100 as a varsity player Saturday.

“Damari has definitely left a lasting legacy,” Knight said. “I honestly don’t think there’s much more that he could have done.”

The numbers bear Knight out, particularly this season. Milstead, a Grand Canyon University commit, is averaging 25.4 points, 5.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game.

A playmaker and defensive hawk first for his first three seasons, Milstead needed to pick up the scoring slack left by the graduation of three prominent players from the 2015-16 team: Terrell Brown, Oscar Frayer and Brandon Lawrence.

Milstead was also the scoring leader last season (19.1 points per game), but with the Mariners having lost more than 43 points per game to graduation, he intially felt he needed to think, “shoot first.”

He scored a career-high 44 points against Mitty in this season’s second game (a 96-88 overtime loss). He added 34 in a 92-79 loss to Morgan Park-Chicago and combined for 50 in back-to-back games against James Logan-Union City and Freedom-Oakley, but that couldn’t keep the Mariners from dropping to 4-9.

On a freshman- and sophomore-dominated team with only three seniors and one junior, something had to change.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” Knight said. “Damari needed to cut down his scoring and figure out how to lead a young team and make them all better.”

It’s helped to have one of the nation’s top freshmen, 6-6 guard Kyree Walker (21.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists per game), around.

“I realized Kyree and I could get any shot, but we could get much better shots with everyone else contributing,” Milstead said. “We’ve also done a much better job defensively, locking teams down.”

Milstead grew up around the game and the AAU circuit. His father, Jules, was a standout at Fremont-Oakland in the late 1990s and later coached with the AAU’s Oakland Soldiers.

Damari Milstead started playing at the age of 5 and three years later was playing with the Soldiers, competing against older kids.

His idols weren’t pro players, but older Soldiers guards Dominic Artis and Paris Austin. By the time he reached Moreau, Milstead was polished but by no means perfect.

“The thing about Damari is he’s so competitive — in everything,” Knight said. “He hates to lose. … At the end of every season, we’d tell him he needs to improve in a certain area. He’d work at it all summer and come back much better.”

Milstead had 10 college offers — including from Cal, St. Mary’s and Washington State — but picked Grand Canyon, which under head coach Dan Majerle just finished its third season as a Division I program. Frayer, who is Milstead’s best friend, started 25 games for the Antelopes (22-9).

“It was between St. Mary’s and Grand Canyon,” Milstead said. “Joining Oscar was a part of it, for sure. We always talked about playing together in college, but ultimately it was my own decision. I could have gone to somewhere proven like St. Mary’s, but I wanted to help start something new.

“Just like in high school. I could have gone to proven Bishop O’Dowd, but wanted to start something at Moreau.”

MaxPreps senior writer Mitch Stephens covers high school sports for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Saturday’s game

Who: No. 3 seed Moreau Catholic-Hayward (24-9) at No. 1 St. Francis-Mountain View (21-9)

What: NorCal Division 2 championship

When: 6 p.m.

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