The girls, giddy and spent, showed off their assortment of footwear.
UGGs, slippers, pink Crocs, all weathered.
The coach, sitting at the far left during a jubilant news conference Saturday, was typically dapper in a suit and equally gassed. Larry Price wiped his bald dome with a towel, sweat pouring down like snow runoff from the mountains at this time of year.
Elk Grove High School’s basketball players wore appropriate kicks for the game of their young lives, and their assorted skills – and the leadership of their sweaty, fierce coach – amounted to a bit of unique history at Sleep Train Arena. Trailing 9-0 early but refusing to buckle under the pressure of the moment or the magnitude of competing in this spacious venue, the 12th-seeded Thundering Herd rallied to topple seventh-seeded Sacramento 46-45 in the CIF Northern California Division II final.
Mira Shulman, one of a host of versatile players and scholars on the Herd’s roster, made what would be the winning free throw with 39.2 seconds to go, and she finished with 14 points and a lot of terrific ballhandling.
The game turned chaotic in the closing seconds. Elk Grove missed a free throw with 10.8 seconds to play, and Sacramento, without a timeout, hustled down the floor. A long three-point attempt was short, and the putback just missed at the buzzer. As Elk Grove players rushed onto the court to celebrate, Dragons players were face down on the floor several feet away.
“A 12 seed, win a crazy game, it’s March Madness everywhere,” said Elk Grove guard Paiton Demps, who had 10 points and 15 rebounds, before pointing to her favorite postgame slippers.
Elk Grove (24-10) defied all sorts of odds against a program in its fourth NorCal title game in 10 seasons. The Herd has been a sports powerhouse across the board, particularly in baseball, football and wrestling, but girls basketball has barely registered on the radar. Playoff appearances often resulted in quick exits. Elk Grove still hasn’t won a Sac-Joaquin Section girls basketball championship.
But after a section semifinal loss to Vanden, the Herd recovered to win four consecutive games in NorCal play. Opened in 1893, Elk Grove had not had any team, boys or girls, reach a NorCal title game. And Saturday marked the Sacramento area’s first NorCal D-II girls winner since El Camino in 1996.
Next Saturday at Sleep Train Arena, Elk Grove plays for the state championship against Cajon of San Bernardino, a 51-30 winner over Mater Dei of Santa Ana in the Southern California final.
“It’s so surreal,” said senior guard Madison Wong, the program’s all-time career scorer. “I’m so proud of each and every one of these players. Everyone had a role.”
Elk Grove’s grit was most evident during the opening moments of the third quarter. The Herd grabbed six successive offensive rebounds, and a moment later, Wong gave Elk Grove its first lead, 29-28.
Sacramento coach Michele Massari said her young team will learn from this loss that competing on every possession adds up. She lauded Elk Grove’s desire as one to emulate. Freshman Adriana Avent led the Dragons (24-10) with 15 points.
The glue for Elk Grove is Price, a towering figure who doubles as a state parole agent for the California Department of Corrections. His mornings are cluttered with chaos, trying to help souls find their way back into society. With the Herd, Price works with students of stark contrast: academic and athletic achievers who giggle at the simple things in life away from the arena. Then they compete relentlessly in games, to the point Price calls them “monsters.”
On the eve of the playoffs, Price had his team watch the classic movie “Hoosiers” with its themes of cohesion and dreams fulfilled. In his first season with Elk Grove after nine successful campaigns at Florin, Price immediately set a tone of focus and intensity. The players respond to their leader, and they adore him. It’s mutual. Price’s assistant coaches stood only during timeouts Saturday. They didn’t second-guess calls, waving their arms frantically like seemingly every other prep team in the land.
“When coach calls a timeout, we run to him, and we’re really focused on him,” Shulman said. “It’s all about what he has to say.”
Said Price, amid a howl of laughter, “What we do is like novocaine; it works every time. This team, we mirror each other. They’re like me and I’m like them.”
For the most part. The girls wore postgame Crocs, slippers and such. The coach had sweat dripping onto his wingtip shoes. Regardless, it was all a championship look and glow.
Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD