It started with the national anthem, polished and pretty. Then the game started.
The early going Saturday afternoon in this CIF Northern California Regional championship game at Sleep Train Arena was anything but polished or pretty.
St. Francis High School basketball student manager Rica Baccay, wearing a walking boot, strummed a moving version of the national anthem with her violin, which normally inspires the Troubadours.
Once it overcame first-half jitters, St. Francis settled down. Then it turned ferocious and opportunistic, using second-half runs of 17-0 and 8-0 to race past Castro Valley 66-52 and win the Division I title, the program’s first since taking D-III honors in 1993.
St. Francis trailed 30-18 at halftime as it made just 8 of 37 shots in a venue known to make shooting percentages plummet. The Troubadours upped the tempo, running the break, hitting jumpers and seizing momentum. They made 10 of 19 shots in the third quarter and 8 of 10 in the fourth against an increasingly tired Trojans bunch from the North Coast Section that came in 33-2.
St. Francis used second-half runs of 17-0 and 8-0 to race past Castro Valley.
“We needed to have more patience,” St. Francis coach Vic Pitton said. “They showed great character, great heart. They believed in each other, kept a positive outlook, stayed composed.”
More composed than, say, the frantic coach who worked the sideline and the referees?
“That’s usually the case,” Pitton joked, much to the roar of laughter of his team seated next to him in a festive postgame scene.
St. Francis (30-5) has a star player surrounded by terrific role players, and everyone competes to the point of exhaustion, a staple of Pitton teams over the years. Tia Hay, a senior guard from Australia headed to Colorado State on scholarship, had 17 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and six steals.
Lauren Craig, a four-year varsity player, had 16 points and 11 rebounds. The center has improved her game tremendously over the seasons, a far cry, Pitton said, from “when it was a 50-50 chance if she’d fall down after rebounds, but she worked hard, worked on her balance. Neat to see.”
Janae Fairbrook, a junior guard, had 14 points and eight rebounds. Her four three-pointers helped spark those second-half rallies.
And senior forward Kyra Huffman muscled inside for 11 points and 10 rebounds, looking active and fierce months after enduring 15 days in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital. Huffman underwent several spinal taps to ward off viral meningitis. Huffman was so out of it during that hospital stay, she didn’t recognize her parents.
Pitton said he recognized not an ounce of fear in his team this postseason.
“There’s a lot of pressure being here put on by the game itself,” the veteran coach said. “Pressure of success, pressure to do well for family and friends, pressure to be the face of the school. We handle it together, with a lot of prayer.”
The Troubadours are in good hands with Hay, who never seems rattled and rarely appears fatigued.
“She has a great sense on the court and has a tremendous basketball IQ,” Pitton said. “She’s our catalyst. She doesn’t say much, but she directs the show.”
Craig spoke for the team when she said, “I wanted to pick up my game in the second half, anything to help us win.”
She has a great sense on the court and has a tremendous basketball IQ. She’s our catalyst. She doesn’t say much, but she directs the show.
St. Francis coach Vic Pitton on Troubadours senior guard Tia Hay
She added, amid laughs: “It’s a dream come true. I’m just so excited.”
St. Francis now hopes for a bit of extended regional karma. A year after one-time Metro League rival McClatchy won the CIF State D-I championship, St. Francis will give it a shot. The Troubadours will play nine-time state champion Brea Olinda on Thursday night at Sleep Train Arena.
“I’m excited for the girls because it’s all about them,” Pitton said. “They’ve worked so hard. This is their reward, all the years they’ve put in, the blood, sweat and tears.”
The tears here were from sheer joy.