The breakthrough was emphatic even if the prize at the finish line Saturday afternoon became painfully unattainable during a dreadful fourth quarter.
For decades, the Elk Grove High School girls basketball program was synonymous with mediocrity or misery, as illustrated by only two league championships in 40 years. But that narrative has changed.
Despite a fourth-quarter collapse against a taller and quicker opponent, Thundering Herd players spoke glowingly of achievement and lasting memories after finishing as the runners-up in the state championships.
Cajon of San Bernardino went on a 19-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters and outscored Elk Grove 23-5 in the fourth to take the CIF State Division II title 55-36 at Sleep Train Arena.
So ends the best season by a country mile for the Elk Grove program, highlighted by the 12th-seeded Herd’s improbable march to the CIF Northern California Regional championship, won in a thriller over Sacramento.
I can’t say that we’re not disappointed. I’m proud of the work we put in. I couldn’t ask for a better team or teammates. I love you guys.
Elk Grove’s Madison Wong
“We’re very proud, all of us,” first-year Elk Grove coach Larry Price said. “We felt like we contended. We’re very satisfied being able to represent not only Sacramento and Elk Grove but Northern California for this championship.”
For three quarters, Elk Grove (24-11) showed flashes of being a state championship team. It played superb defense against a Cowboys team averaging 74 points. The Herd shared the ball and competed, as every Price-coached crew does.
But Elk Grove was undone by poor shooting as attempts rimmed out or sometimes missed the hoop. The Herd led by nine late in the first half and trailed 32-31 after three quarters before its attack stalled.
Elk Grove shot 24 percent overall and was outrebounded 44-21, the extended possessions allowing Cajon (27-6) to wear down the Herd. Kayla Washington led the Cowboys with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Tyla Turner scored 17 points, and her twin sister, Tyra, had seven points and played strong on-ball defense.
Mira Shulman led Elk Grove with 15 points, and Madison Wong had 10 to bow out as the program’s all-time career scorer. No other Elk Grove player had more than two points.
“I really have to applaud Elk Grove,” Cajon coach Mark Lehman said. “They gave us all we could handle for three quarters. They won NorCal as a 12 seed and gave us a game.”
Said Wong, flanked by her teammates, “I can’t say that we’re not disappointed. I’m proud of the work we put in. I couldn’t ask for a better team or teammates. I love you guys.”
Elk Grove will lose Wong and fellow starting guard Arianna Daniel to graduation. But the Herd will return Shulman, one of Northern California’s top players; Paiton Demps; Sydnee Kilbride; and a host of others. Versatile and driven, Shulman received the D-II final’s Pursuing Victory with Honor Award.
Price told his players to expect their seasons to stretch well into March.
I really have to applaud Elk Grove. They gave us all we could handle for three quarters. They won NorCal as a 12 seed and gave us a game.
Cajon coach Mark Lehman
“I told the ladies that there’s a new culture here, to not get used to packing away uniforms in February,” Price said. “We didn’t start to really jell until the Delta League season, and then we were like a jet and zoomed. The culture has been developed at Elk Grove. We’re the new kids on the block, and we’ll be back.
“We told the (departing seniors) that we’d send them off on the right note. We won NorCal, and we wanted state, but we’re still sending them off right. They’re the pioneers here now.”
Price doubles as a parole agent with the California Department of Corrections. His days can be stressful but never his evenings, he said. Price said coaching the Herd “was my tranquility, a gift.”
The players, meanwhile, expressed admiration for Price, calling him “Coach Larry.” Each agreed Price was the driving force that elevated the program to one of the state’s best.
Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD