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  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Pleasant Grove High coach James McKeever beams Saturday as he accepts a trophy honoring his girls basketball team on beating the Berkeley Yellowjackets 51-42 in the title game for the NorCal Division I championship.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Pleasant Grove High players and coach James McKeever celebrate Saturday at Sleep Train Arena after their victory over the Berkeley Yellowjacketsin the girls NorCal Division I championship.

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Pleasant Grove basking in championship aura; looks to take state title today

Published: Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 - 7:01 pm

It poured Wednesday morning at Pleasant Grove High School, but that didn’t dampen the spirit on the Elk Grove campus awash in a championship glow.

Ink ran on posters celebrating the Eagles’ latest athletic achievement, still the message was clear: The Eagles have landed.

The girls basketball team made history Saturday, becoming the lowest-area seed of either gender to win a CIF Northern California Regional championship. It aims to reach an even higher level by winning the state Division I championship today when the Eagles (25-9) play Canyon Springs (24-6) of Moreno Valley at Sleep Train Arena at 6 p.m.

“Everyone’s taken notice on campus – the teachers, students – about what we’ve done, and it’s great,” Pleasant Grove senior forward Aaliyah Pena said. “We want one more. It’s fun being the underdog.”

Pleasant Grove is making a name for itself far beyond the campus, too. In its nine-year existence, the school has established a winning culture in both athletics and academics. It is home to 2,400 students at the northwest corner of Bradshaw and Bond roads, and graduates have made their mark in NASCAR, the NCAA and NFL.

Perhaps most remarkable is this year’s girls team.

It was seeded 11th of 14 teams in the large-school Division I NorCal field, so the players made a habit of packing sandwiches and then packing themselves into vans for trips to the Bay Area. They beat McClymonds in Oakland (45-43), Wilcox in Santa Clara (37-35) and Monte Vista in Danville (56-54 in overtime) to reach the NorCal final at Sleep Train Arena, a welcome short trek from campus. There, Pleasant Grove unseated three-time defending champion Berkeley 51-42.

All this from a team that didn’t win the Delta River League and didn’t make it to the Sac-Joaquin Section finals.

Pleasant Grove coach James McKeever started the girls team when the school opened in 2005. After the victory over Berkeley, he said he was in a “dream zone” and didn’t “want to wake up.” One of his players asked, “Is this real?”

If Pleasant Grove wins today, it will become just the second girls team in the 197-school section to win a Division I state title (Oak Ridge did it in 2010).

And only one section boys team has won a Division I state title, and that’s giving the Eagles plenty of inspiration. Last season, the Pleasant Grove boys team didn’t win a league or section title, either, but they beat Santa Monica 73-57 to win the state title.

That is prominently displayed on the gym wall, where the girls see it every day.

“We want a banner, just above the boys,” Eagles senior center Alaina Paaga said.

If they win the championship, it would join the long list of other notable school achievements by students and alumni:

• NASCAR driver Kyle Larson won his first Nationwide Series race Saturday in Fontana then came in second in the Sprint Car race Sunday.

• Brothers Armond and Arik Armstead are defensive linemen with the New England Patriots and the Oregon Ducks.

• Aly Carda, who plays for No. 1 ranked UCLA in softball, was named Pacific-12 Conference Pitcher of the Week for the second time. Her teammate, outfielder Alyssa Tiumalu, also graduated from Pleasant Grove.

• The school’s softball team is ranked No. 1 by The Bee and the baseball team is No. 2.

• The football team finished last season ranked No. 6 by The Bee after winning two Sac-Joaquin Section playoff games.

• The academic decathlon team competed in the state championship last week, the first school from the 55-year-old Elk Grove Unified School District to do so.

• The school is the two-time defending district math competition champion.

• The Science Olympiad team went to a state event last year.

• The band was selected by Disney to be on the cover of its national promotional packet.

Pleasant Grove co-captain guard Brittany Nguyen said she is a nerd who wants to study engineering, pointing to her T-shirt that reads, “Just Do It.”

As practice ended Tuesday night, McKeever talked about his team’s diversity and its collective 3.45 GPA.

“We have it all: African Americans, Hispanic, Samoan, Vietnamese, Filipino, white,” said McKeever. “We’re the epitome of a public school where it all comes together. Very neat.”

Pena, who is half Latino and half African American, will play basketball on scholarship and study business at UC Irvine, and she wants to travel the world to study culinary arts.

“I want to open a restaurant, and it’ll reflect who I am,” said Pena. “It’ll be called Jala-Pena with soul food and Mexican food. Can’t wait.”

McKeever, whose calm reflects his team, played sports at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica in the mid-1980s. He told his team, “I did all the dirty work: rebounds, effort points, and you win that way.”

McKeever, a solar engineer for a local firm who sent three of his kids through Pleasant Grove, thinks of his 13 players as his own, too. And no wonder he looks exhausted; none of his assistants from last season could return, leaving him to run the team himself.

“James is amazing, and he’s proof that if teams play together, it’s chemistry more than D-I scholarships that win,” Pleasant Grove athletic director Jeff Caton said. “McKeever was telling me the other day that he was thankful to his bosses, telling them that his season might be over at the end of February, then it was March, and here we are.”

McKeever has another believer in Pleasant Grove principal Hank Meyer, who coached Jesuit High to NorCal Division I basketball titles in 1993 and 1994. Meyer beamed when CIF officials presented McKeever with the NorCal plaque at Sleep Train.

“He’s done an extraordinary job with this group,” Meyer said. “It’s a true team. ... They are a tough-minded group who refuse to quit. All of this is a credit to Coach McKeever. He has the girls believing they can beat anyone. They only have one more team to beat.”


Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.

Read more articles by Joe Davidson



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