When Randy Reeder returned to the Exeter sidelines three years ago, he knew he had a talented group of players that could make a run at a Central Section boys basketball championship by the time they were seniors.
The Monarchs are now one win away from accomplishing that goal.
No. 2 Exeter defeated No. 3 Sierra 56-40 to reach the Central Section Division IV championship game on Wednesday night in Exeter.
The Monarchs will play No. 8 Coalinga at noon Saturday at Selland Arena in Fresno.
"We had a great summer," Reeder said. "We were sitting up at Immanuel and I sat the boys down and I told them, 'We can go to Selland Arena.' That's been our goal. We went through fall ball and played well there. We had a good preseason and good season. To finish this way here and to have a chance to play for Valley, we're really excited."
The Monarchs have been one of the more pleasant surprises in Tulare County this season.
They improved to 22-6 with Wednesday's victory, matching their total number of wins from each of the previous two seasons.
Even though the Monarchs won 10 and 12 games the past two seasons, respectively, their breakout season didn't come as a surprise to Reeder.
They returned seniors Eli Garver and Cody Tilley, who played considerable minutes since they were sophomores, and they had important pieces of the puzzle in junior post Caleb Harden and junior point guard Brandon Briones, who logged significant minutes last season.
"I knew there was enough talent there," Reeder said. "When you take over a program, it usually takes three years. With what was there, we had some shooters and scorers, then you have the big kid Harden, and Briones has really grown up a bunch. I think he's our nucleus."
The Monarchs may have to play without Briones in Saturday's Division IV championship game. He was ejected with about 12 seconds left in the game after an altercation with Sierra's Casey Blunt.
The game was very physical and chippy throughout. Sierra was called for two technical fouls earlier in the game, and Blunt had been going after Briones since the two got tangled up late in the third quarter and Blunt's face smashed into the floor, giving him a bloody nose.
The feeling in the stands was that the referees let the game get away from them, but Reeder wasn't so sure.
"I don't want to say," Reeder said. "There was a lot of stuff and a lot of grabbing going on. I know they want the kids to play, and maybe it should've been cleaned up a bit. There's three of them out there so they have a better view than me. It wasn't one way or the other, but it is a shame. I just hope Brandon can play Saturday."
If a player is ejected, CIF rules state a player must sit out the next game, but Exeter can appeal to have the suspension lifted.
Briones, who is Exeter's main ball handler, finished the game with 10 points. He helped lead a balanced Exeter scoring attack. Harden scored a team-high 13 points, Garver and Jordan Bayne each scored 10 points, and Tilley chipped in with seven points.
The Monarchs were able to spread the ball around, but it is clear that the key to this team's success is their defense.
"We don't score much so we have to find something to win games," Garver said.
Reeder said tough defense is his team's staple.
"We know we have trouble scoring sometimes," Reeder said. "Most teams will score 65 points, but we hold them to 40. I always thought that's how you win games anyway. These guys bought in and they're getting it done."
The Monarchs were clearly excited to reach the Division IV title game. But they know their work isn't over.
"We've been doing this since the fourth grade," Garver said. "This is nice. We put in all this work, to come in and get to Valley is nice. But we're not finished. We want one more. We set a goal and we want to meet it. We want to win Valley."