Joe Davidson

High school notes: For Rio Linda coach, home is where his heart is

The Rio Linda Knights aim to add more banners to their championship wall.
The Rio Linda Knights aim to add more banners to their championship wall. Courtesy of Jerry Huffhines

Jerry Huffhines didn’t expect to coach long, maybe a season or two.

Huffhines took over the beleaguered girls basketball program at Rio Linda High School in 1998 when athletic director Terry Ray tossed him the keys to the gym, shook his hand and said in so many words, “Good luck, son.” But Huffhines, who was the Knights’ fourth girls coach in as many seasons, is still there.

“Terry Ray was my basketball coach here, and I told him I’d coach one season, but you’ll have to find someone soon,” Huffhines recalled. “He never looked, and I never left.”

The Knights were 2-24 in Huffhines’ first season, when dribbling and setting screens were a challenge. Now, with fundamentals and effort the foundation, he leads a perennial championship contender. The Knights again feature daughter Brandy Huffhines, a third-year varsity guard.

For the third consecutive season, Rio Linda (18-11) is a top-four seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs. In Tuesday’s 6 p.m. semifinal in Galt, the third-seeded Knights play seventh seed and Tri-County Conference rival River Valley (24-4 in an effort to return to the final at Sleep Train Arena. Last season, Rio Linda reached its first title game in 30 years, falling to Vanden.

“I love this school and town,” Jerry Huffhines said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, played for legendary coaches. I know the effort and time they put into this, and that’s what I try to do. When you’re coaching at your old school, you put even more heart and soul into it, more feeling and caring.”

In October, the Knights were jolted when standout guard and leading scorer Makalia Sanders transferred to Foothill, where she had to sit out the season after the section office ruled the move was athletically motivated. But Rio Linda didn’t miss a beat, sharing league title honors with River Valley and fourth-seeded Inderkum, which plays top-seeded Christian Brothers in Tuesday’s other semifinal.

Rio Linda is led by Brandy Huffhines (14.4 points), Dejanet Porter (12.2) and Alexis Zimmerman (10.6). Kaitlyn Clayton, Keari Morrison and Creonah Bryant also play key roles.

“It’s a special group, very hard-working,” Huffhines said. “Most of these girls have been playing together since the eighth grade. They have a chip on their shoulder. They want to win.”

In Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. semifinal, Christian Brothers (23-6) features Kalani Mark (12.8 points) and Brianna Juniel (11.7). Inderkum (21-7) is led by Kaliya Griffin (18.6) and Daisia Williams (13.0).

Division I – The top four girls teams advanced to Tuesday’s semifinals at Pacific.

Fourth-seeded Folsom (21-7) plays nationally ranked No. 1 St. Mary’s of Stockton (25-0) at 9 p.m. Folsom’s McKenzie Forbes, a candidate for The Sacramento Bee’s Player of the Year award, is battling the flu, and the Bulldogs will need her to help break the Rams’ trademark fullcourt press. The Rams have won the last three Division I section titles, eight in a row spanning different divisions and a record 16 total.

Second-seeded Oak Ridge (27-1) plays third-seeded St. Francis (25-4) at 7:30 p.m. Oak Ridge has won 25 consecutive games; St. Francis has won 12 straight.

A key frontcourt matchup pits St. Francis’ Lauren Craig against Oak Ridge’s Kassidy DeLapp, who had a big game in the Trojans’ 40-33 victory over defending CIF State D-I state champion McClatchy in the quarterfinals.

St. Francis’ only losses to section teams were 52-47 to Christian Brothers and 69-55 to Antelope, seeded first in Division II.

Division II – In what should be a high-scoring game, Antelope (28-1) meets fourth-seeded Sacramento (21-8) in a 4 p.m. semifinal Tuesday at Pacific. The Titans feature Angelica Baylon and sisters Nadia and Nia Johnson against a Dragons attack led by Aliceah Hernandez.

In the 5:30 p.m. game, third-seeded Elk Grove (20-9) faces second-seeded Vanden (21-8). The Thundering Herd is led by Mira Shulman (18.7 points) and the program’s career scoring leader, Madison Wong (14.9). The Vikings are paced by Utah-bound Kiana Moore (14.4).

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD