It took 15 years to produce a girls basketball winner at this small high school with big ambitions in El Dorado.
That’s 15 years of slow starts and dreadful losing streaks.
Now that the Union Mine Diamondbacks have gotten a taste of victory, they can’t stop. They’re hooked, and the season is just now hitting an extra gear.
Seeded 16th, Union Mine stunned top-ranked Christian Brothers 54-47 on Tuesday night in Sacramento, thus toppling the CIF Northern California Division III playoff bracket on its heels.
It’s not just a victory for the CIF’s 3-year-old competitive-equity NorCal playoff format that has produced scores of close games, it’s a rousing triumph for a Union Mine program that has come of age and then some under coaches Scott Gilliland and Haley Martinez.
The school opened in 1999 and labored through long seasons before breaking through with its first winner in 2013 . Normally, a 1 seed devours a 16 seed, but the determined Diamondbacks were not about to allow that narrative to end their season.
“We’re the 16 seed,” Gilliland said. “We’re supposed to be the sacrificial lamb, just show up. Now, we’ll be the team that no one wants to face.”
Using simplicity - fundamentals and sheer effort - and riding the talents of its two do-all captains, Union Mine (21-8) beat a tall and talented Christian Brothers (21-10) outfit that just competed in its third successive Sac-Joaquin Section final.
The Diamondbacks’ leaders are Alli McDonald and Carley Zaragoza. They compete to the point of red-faced exhaustion, making passes, scoring inside, playing defense and salting games away from the free-throw line.
McDonald, a junior guard/wing/forward, had 15 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots. She made 9 of 10 free throws. Zaragoza, a 6-foot-1 senior center, had 18 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots.
This 1-2 tandem is as good as it gets in the region. They read each other and feed off of one another. Those two are also 4.0 students, good pals and teammates since elementary school.
“And they’re such good kids,” Gilliland said. “They do everything for us.”
Those captains have also been unifying pieces to a program that was rocked this season by illness, injury and the death of a parent of a player.
“It’s forced us to come together, and it’s made us more of a family,” Zaragoza said of the adversity. “The season we’ve had and the big wins, it’s such a fun experience. No one was ready for the season to end.”
Diamondbacks players have a simple motto at the end of each practice: “We on three.”
The program leader is Gilliland, revered and respected by his players. He’s a physical education instructor in his fourth season heading the basketball program. He’s calm during games as he and Martinez, a math teacher on campus, rarely even raise their voices or stand. They let their players do their job, coaching without harping, hollering or micro-managing.
Not that they’re always this mellow.
“We try to convey calm in games,” Gilliland said. “In practice, I’m yelling, but in games, we trust the players to do their thing.”
Gilliland’s thing has always been teaching and stressing the basics of the game. He learned those elements from his South Tahoe High coach, Tom Orlich, a legend of sorts from his long coaching run. Gilliland played on the 1992 South Tahoe team that won the Nevada state championship.
His first Union Mine team in 2015-16 went 8-14. Then, the Diamondbacks went 20-8 and 28-3, leading into this season.
“We try to do simple things well,” Gilliland said. “It works. We expect to compete for championships now at Union Mine - league and section, and now NorCals. It’s working.”
Union Mine plays at Aragon of San Mateo on Thursday, ready for anything now.
For complete scores and brackets, visit cif.state.org.