Of 23 local teams that high-stepped into the CIF Northern California Regional basketball playoffs in high-tops, only three remain.
That's how difficult it is to survive and advance. Resiliency, pride and skill rewarded the Big 3 the Del Oro and Sacramento girls and the Woodcreek boys.
Now each prepares for No. 1 seeds in title matchups Saturday at Power Balance Pavilion with a state final berth at stake. Only the Sacramento Dragons emerged from the NBA arena earlier this month in good spirits as a Sac-Joaquin Section champion. Del Oro and Woodcreek lost crushing contests at Power Balance and used those setbacks as fuel to return.
The Dragons of Oak Park are in the Division III final for the fourth time since 2006 and second successive season under coach Michele Massari after beating Campolindo of Moraga 58-54 in a semifinal.
Woodcreek raced past Antelope 58-39 in a section D-II rematch. The Roseville school is in the final for the third time since 2003 and second time under coach Paul Hayes, in his second Woodcreek stint.
Del Oro is in a final for the first time since 1999, with the same coach in Mike Takayama. Expect half the town of Loomis to again stand behind the Golden Eagles.
"It's hard to get here," Takayama sighed.
Del Oro was stung by a 70-65 loss to national power St. Mary's of Stockton in the section final and got the rematch it so badly wanted. St. Mary's beat Dougherty Valley of San Ramon 56-44 in the other NorCal semifinal.
Of all the semifinal games for the local winners, Del Oro experienced the most taxing one, upending Presentation in San Jose 63-59 in overtime. The Golden Eagles rallied from six down in the fourth quarter to force the extra period, and then Belle Obert and Brianna Ruiz hit back-to-back three-pointers.
"Very, very pleased," Takayama said. "The kids played great. We're excited to play St. Mary's again."
Ruiz scored 19 points, Obert 16 and Madeline Campbell had 13 of her 18 in the fourth quarter to lead Del Oro. Obert had seven rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots, and role players such as Becky Duncan and Stephanie Geyer were solid.
Massari sweated out the final moments against Campolindo when missed Dragons free throws kept the visitors in it.
As they have all season, senior guards Breana Williams and Fantasia Hilliard led the charge, with underclassmen Jasmine Ware, Allie Green, Ayanna Edwards, Dalayna Tyler-Scott and Najah Queenland growing by the week.
Rest assured, Hilliard will work on free throws this week as she missed the front end of three one-and-ones in the fourth quarter. Sacramento plays Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd, a 48-39 winner over St. Ignatius of San Francisco.
"I love this group," Massari said of her Dragons. "What makes us so good is that from one to 10, everyone knows they can play. If one person is off, then another person is on. Everybody does something to help us."
And there's Woodcreek, where teamwork is also the theme of the season. The Timberwolves have been sparked by their terrific backcourt of Devin Murphy and John Peska. Murphy is poised at the point and muscled in for 12 rebounds against Antelope, and Peska offered high-arcing shots to score 24 points.
In the first meeting between the schools, Antelope's Jarvis Watkins (20 points) won it with a late bucket at Power Balance. He made no field goals in the rematch. Woodcreek will meet Archbishop Mitty of San Jose, a 70-61 winner of Las Lomas of Walnut Creek.