Grit, skill and sheer will.
That’s the quickest, most succinct way to describe this group, one that made history on Friday night at Cal with an epic effort and uncommon composure in a steamy Haas Pavilion where parents, fans and general followers couldn’t bear to sit.
McClatchy High School outlasted Serra of Gardena 65-61 in a fantastic and frantic double-overtime affair to decide the CIF State Division I championship, the cozy confines holding in crowd noise to add to the energy.
That McClatchy rallied from a 14-3 early hole to storm to a 10-point lead with 1:11 to go in regulation seems fitting as that roller coaster matched the emotion, and the program’s climb to get here. A 14-13 team in 2012 under a first-year coach named Jessica Kunisaki to this milestone moment, the Lions left the Bay Area, unspeakably proud and spent, and with an honor beyond the medals they now cherish. This is the first girls team to win a state championship – regardless of sport – in the history of the Sacramento City Unified School District.
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“It’s unreal, special,” said Kunisaki, a McClatchy graduate and a campus counselor. “I don’t know if anyone imagined it.”
What’s more, McClatchy, top-ranked by The Bee all season, scored one for public schools everywhere in an era and sport that has become overwhelmingly dominated by private-school powers. The core of the Lions has been together for three or four years.
“Big shots, big moments, plays that make for nice, long-lasting memories,” Serra coach McKenzie Hadley said. “Both teams played extremely well, extremely hard.”
The Lions (28-7) received a hero’s sendoff Friday morning, some 2,300 students decked in school-color red ushering them to uncharted waters, the irony that Cal is barely 3.6 miles from the Bay’s choppy seas. Other regional programs used social media to wish McClatchy well throughout the week and game.
Afterwards, CIF Executive Director Roger Blake approached Kunisaki and applauded the effort of the Lions, moved that her players were quick to help Serra players up off the floor as champions with character. When it was over, McClatchy players were red faced from fatigue and emotion, and some cried after a lot of hugs. Now they can rest. The journey is complete.
“They can sleep all next week since it’s spring break,” Kunisaki said with broad smile.
Per the Lions’ norm, everyone contributed. Eight players scored, inside, outside or from the line. Gigi Garcia, the 6-foot-3 junior forward, had 19 points and 20 rebounds. She handled the ball, passed and blocked six shots. And she teared up knowing and feeling that her family was just as excited as she was, cheering and groaning through the game’s ups and downs.
“I loved that,” she said. “I’m so happy. We all are. We always break the huddle with ‘Family on three.’ We mean it. I love these girls.”
Frontcourt mate Destiney Lee had 12 points and seven rebounds, and she embodied the team spirit and loyalty by not rocking the boat. The UNLV-bound senior missed much of the season with a stress fracture in her foot and was glad to come off the bench upon her return on the eve of the playoffs. It was Lee who bear-hugged coaches after the game, lifting them, and then led the team over to the rooting section to offer mutual appreciation.
“I was worried how I would play injured, but I knew I had to pull it out and go for it,” Lee said. “I had to do it for my teammates. Our freshman year, we weren’t even ranked. We really came together. We pulled it off.”
Senior guard Lauren Nubla had 15 points and five assists as she and teammates Kelsey and Kristi Wong warded off full-court pressure by the taller, more athletic Cavaliers (23-12) of the power-packed Southern Section.
Alex Washington scored the final four points for McClatchy, which salted it away with free throws down the stretch. Garcia powered inside for back-to-back buckets to make it 61-56 with 51.1 seconds to go to put the Lions in control. Nubla said she sensed urgency in the closing moments. She and Lee are the primary seniors on a roster that otherwise returns in tact.
“For us seniors,” she said, “we weren’t coming back. This was it. It all come down to heart. We were dead tired but we wanted it really bad. The adrenaline kept us going.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.