McClatchy High School girls basketball players don’t compare stylish sneakers, nail polish or ponytail scrunchies; they compare bruises.
They are a tender-to-the-touch lot these days, ice packs at the ready. There is nothing meek about these Lions. They press fullcourt, play man-to-man defense, bang inside and dive for loose balls with little regard to bodily harm. And that’s just in practice.
The wear and tear appears like a road map on the legs, arms and feet of the Lions – a healing gash here, a blackish-blue mark there – that leads to the 34th and final game of the season Friday when McClatchy (26-7) plays Serra of Gardena (23-10) at 6 p.m. at Cal’s Haas Pavilion in the CIF State Division I championship.
“The bruises,” forward Jordan Cruz explained during practice Tuesday, “shows how dedicated we are, how tough we are, how hard we work.”
Added forward Gigi Garcia: “We compare scars and surgeries, too. It’s awesome.”
It starts with junior twin guards Kristi and Kelsey Wong, who go full speed in games and practice but otherwise hobble and limp. Kristi has a bulky knee wrap and Kelsey has an equally heavy shin wrap, the result of countless spills and collisions.
On the court, the Wongs set the defensive pace. Off the court, they’re smiling, shy scholars, unfailingly polite.
“They’re the sweetest kids,” McClatchy assistant coach Jeff Ota said. “Then they get on the floor, and it’s Jekyll and Hyde.”
The most suffering this season was endured by Destiney Lee, the senior center headed to UNLV on scholarship. She missed much of the early season because of stress fractures in her feet, but she blended back in by coming off the bench.
No one complains about roles because most everyone on the bench gets plenty of playing time.
“We’re a team,” Garcia said.
And then some, according to Oak Ridge coach Steve White, whose team lost to McClatchy 58-49 in the CIF Northern California Regional Division I title game, exhausted down the stretch as the Lions closed it out.
“McClatchy’s a great team, a complete team,” White said. “They have size, guard play, shooters, and they’re so disciplined and well coached. You have to play a near-perfect game to beat them.”
The team has developing a following on campus and in the community. McClatchy has a distinguished and varied alumni list, including Anthony Kennedy, an associate justice with the U.S. Supreme Court since 1988; Curtis Michael, a NASA astronaut in the 1960s; Abe Cunningham and Chino Moreno, musicians for the rock band Deftones, and Major League Baseball players Larry Bowa, Dion James, Nick Johnson and Rowland Office.
McClatchy, the city’s second-oldest high school after Sacramento, opened in 1937 as part of the New Deal initiative by President Franklin Roosevelt. The school, whose stylish urban structure still is appealing, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
The storied gym received a $2.2 million upgrade through a bond measure, including new paint, lights and baskets. Coaches no longer wonder where the rats scurried to under the bleachers. Home games against rivals such as Kennedy and Sacramento regularly sell out, with the Legion of Lions fan club leading cheers. It’s a blend of sport and community housed in a cozy setting.
When McClatchy players and coaches talk of connections to the past, it’s not a cliché.
Coach Jessica Kunisaki, a 2004 McClatchy graduate, was picked by Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame coach Harvey Tahara as his successor in 2011.
Kunisaki grew up in the McClatchy gym, attending youth clinics there before playing for the Lions. Her father, Rod Kunisaki, the former president of the Sacramento Asian Sports Foundation, played for Tahara in the 1970s.
Ota, the assistant coach, was a star guard at McClatchy in the 1970s, and his kids – Tricia and Troy – played at McClatchy. Ota also is the Lions boys coach. “I wouldn’t do this at any other school,” he said.
Congratulatory posters dot the campus hallways, and teacher, counselors and students have been offering waves of high fives and kudos to the players.
“It’s amazing what’s going on,” Garcia said.
The nearby Land Park Ski & Sports Shop’s sign reads, “Play B Ball like a girl. CKM Lady Lions that is.”
“It’s a special time, a special group,” said Kunisaki, who works on campus as a counselor. “I receive so many texts and emails from people, some that I don’t even know, and they’re so excited. They like how we play. It validates us.”
McClatchy is playing for a state championship for the first time in any sport. The Lions aim to become the first Sacramento City Unified School District to win a state title, too.
“It’s so exciting,” Garcia said. “We’re ready for this. We’re going to give it our all.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.