If there was one lesson that Jessica Kunisaki embraced from her mentor and coach in Harvey Tahara, it was this: Compete.
Now in her third season as the girls basketball coach at her alma mater, McClatchy High School, Kunisaki has her stamp on the program Tahara elevated into a regional power.
Tuesday night, the Lions offered another glimpse of how special they can be in what has been a season of great promise. Host McClatchy stormed to a 12-0 lead and coasted to a 57-33 rout of one-time Metro League rival St. Francis in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoff opener.
The Lions (24-3) were efficient in all facets against the overwhelmed Troubadours (17-12). They ran the break. They shared the ball. They hit mid-range shots and three-pointers. They pounded the ball inside, they played defense.
“That’s all I really ask of them is to play hard, always play hard,” Kunisaki said. “I want them to cherish every moment they have out there because this all goes by so fast.”
Tahara, who won championships with the boys and girls teams at McClatchy and is in the section Hall of Fame, was on hand to admire the view. He nodded and smiled when asked about Kunisaki, saying, simply, “she’s doing a great job.” The gym floor bears the name of Tahara and his wife Janice.
“I love it when Coach is here,” Kunisaki said. “I’m coaching because of him. I learned so much from him. ... It’s fun to see how this team has come together.”
Junior guard Lauren Nubla expertly ran the Lions from the point. Twin sophomore guards Kelsey and Kristi Wong hit three-pointers to stretch the Troubadours’ defense as they also had no answer for the Lions’ 1-2 inside power punch of Destiney Lee and Gigi Garcia.
Garcia scored 19 points and had 10 rebounds, Lee had 13 and 13, and the 6-footers combined for eight blocked shots. Lee is a junior and Garcia a sophomore, making for the youngest starting lineup in the D-I field.
Kristi Wong had 12 points, all on three-pointers, and Kelsey Wong had five points. Sara Shimizu had five to help advance the Lions into Thursday’s second round at Bee No. 1-ranked Nevada Union, which rolled Sheldon 77-47 in another opener.
The last time McClatchy faced a Bee top-ranked team was Jan. 23, when it belted Sacramento 54-29. Tuesday marked the Lions’ first playoff victory since 2010 when they reached the second round of the Northern California Regional playoffs in Tahara’s second to last season. McClatchy fell to Pleasant Grove 61-58 in a playoff opener last season to end a 22-6 season, but the foundation of a revival was set.
“This is the first step,” said Nubla, the Lions guard. “We’re taking it one step at a team, game by game. We know if we keep playing hard, anything can happen.”
St. Francis beat Edison of Stockton 51-32 in an outbracket game Friday, but was undone by turnovers and poor shooting. Troubadours coach Vic Pitton said he was pleased with his team’s effort this season – his teams are known for all-out hustle – and he sized up the Lions simply in saying. “They’re really, really good.”
River City 51, Monterey Trail 49 – Carmen Garcia hit two late threes to rally the host Raiders (24-9), who won their first D-I playoff game after years of lower-level competition. Garcia’s three with 54 seconds left was the difference, pushing River City ahead 50-49. She had a three a moment earlier to pull to within 49-47 and finished with 17 points.