Oak Ridge girls aim at another state basketball title bid

Published: Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3C
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013 - 11:45 am

Haley Anderson and Ali Bettencourt remember the last time Oak Ridge played Berkeley in the school's first CIF Northern California Division I girls basketball championship game at Sleep Train Arena.

It was three years ago and eighth-grader Bettencourt was sitting in the front row of a jubilant Oak Ridge student section.

"We couldn't believe it," said Bettencourt, now a junior guard for the Trojans, as was her sister Carly on that 2009-10 team. "We were huge underdogs, and we were winning. The atmosphere was crazy."

Anderson was a wide-eyed freshman forward, having just been called up from the junior varsity team. The only on-court action she saw was during warmups, and she watched as her childhood idol, Stanford-bound Sara James, led the Trojans to a 52-42 victory over the Yellowjackets.

"It was hard to watch, but I was so emotionally invested, just as if I had been on the team the whole year," said Anderson, now the Trojans' senior leader. "What I remember most is the belief we had then. It's the same belief we have now.

"I also remember Sara saying, 'This is not going to be my last game.' I don't want this to be my last game, either, because I have had such a great experience here."

Berkeley, one of Northern California's all-time girls programs, enters today's 2 p.m. rematch a misleading 12th seed. This is Berkeley's 16th NorCal championship game, having won 11 titles, including the past two seasons.

But No. 10-seed Oak Ridge hopes to match the 2010 team that not only upset Berkeley, but nationally ranked Long Beach Poly a week later for the state championship. (Long Beach Poly plays for the Southern California Regional D-I title today in Ontario.)

Oak Ridge will rely on 5-foot-10 Bettencourt and 5-8 Anderson, the team's scoring and rebounding leaders, respectively.

Both are All-Delta River League selections this season with junior point guard Jenn Hoffman.

They are joined by a deep group of role players that includes seniors Nikki Dow and Jenna Ford, junior Michelle Barkley and sophomores Yumi Drossos, Shelby Peters and Grace Derksen.

Some of Oak Ridge's best basketball has come after its worst performance of the season, a 65-42 loss to Kennedy in a Sac-Joaquin Section semifinal.

"Oh, man, that was just a bad day," Bettencourt said. "We felt we came out overprepared, overthinking things, and we collectively played poorly."

Trojans coach Steve White said Kennedy played an outstanding game, shooting 58 percent from the floor, while his team barely averaged more than one basket for every three attempts and was outrebounded 33-19.

"I think the girls have done a good job of regrouping, refocusing and overcoming some good teams on the road," White said of his team's NorCal road victories at Amador Valley in Pleasanton, Wilcox in Santa Clara and Heritage in Brentwood.

"Berkeley will be a huge challenge. We may have the higher seed, but we're the underdog. They are playing really strong right now."

Since Oak Ridge was elevated from D-II to D-I four years ago, the Trojans have met the Yellowjackets in the NorCal playoffs every year.

Oak Ridge lost 75-49 in the 2011 quarterfinals and 49-38 in last year's semifinals.

Today's game at Sleep Train Arena will give Oak Ridge somewhat of a home-court advantage.

"We'll have even more people cheering for us," Bettencourt said. "The word's going around on Twitter. Everyone is pretty excited about us getting this far."

Many girls dream of playing basketball for the community's only high school, which has won three section titles and finished as runners-up four times during White's 18-year tenure.

Anderson remembers chasing down basketballs at Sleep Train Arena as a 7-year-old ballgirl when her older sisters, Kelsey (who rowed at San Diego State) and Linnea (played softball for Brown University), played for Oak Ridge's first section championship team in 2003.

"I grew up with the program," said Anderson, who will play basketball next season at UC San Diego.

Bettencourt recalls during her elementary school years marveling at the play of then-Oak Ridge star Emily Christensen, who went on to star at Sacramento State.

Bettencourt and Anderson participate in a youth basketball program that White and Anson Wong, a parent of one of White's former players, started nearly a decade ago.

"The fifth-graders I helped coach last year are now at our games and showing support just like me and my teammates used to do when we were that age," Bettencourt said. "It's like a cycle."

Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

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