Spring break plans were scuttled in exchange for more wind sprints and film study.
And no one complained.
Members of the Elk Grove High School girls basketball team had plans during the off week to hit the beach, mall or, for extra sleep, sack. But the Thundering Herd has pushed an improbable journey to the finish line.
Elk Grove will play Cajon of San Bernardino for the CIF State Division II championship game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Sleep Train Arena. The beach and sleep can wait.
“Might have been Santa Cruz this week, but we’d much rather be here in the gym because this is the practice we all dreamed about,” said Madison Wong, Elk Grove senior guard. “This is a great alternative.”
Wong has put up impressive numbers in relative obscurity. She is the program’s all-time career scorer, a four-year starter who has never embraced the idea of her team’s season ending in February. An Elk Grove basketball team, boys or girls, has never played this late in a season.
Wong, who has scored 1,549 career points, is averaging 14.9, but her biggest moment was being able to hoist the Northern California Regional Championship trophy last weekend after Elk Grove held off Sacramento High at Sleep Train.
The Thundering Herd has won just two league championships since 1982, and none the last four seasons.
“My freshman year, we didn’t even make the playoffs,” Wong said. “Sophomore year, we were out after the first round. Last year, we won a playoff game, and then we were out. Now? It’s really cool. I’m still in a daydream. No matter what happens now, it’s been a great season.”
Wong is joined in the starting lineup by senior guard Arianna Daniel, junior forward Paiton Demps, junior center Sydnee Kilbride and junior guard Mira Shulman, the team’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game.
Everyone in Herd gear points to Wong as the program’s leader.
“She’s earned this,” Shulman said of Wong. “I saw her play her freshman year, and every year, we’ve gotten better as a team. This year, we thought, ‘OK, let’s win two playoff games, or three.’ But we blew it all out of the water with this.”
When Larry Price became the Herd’s head coach after nine seasons at Florin, he immediately approached Wong.
“I told her, ‘You’re my leader,’ and she’s been all of that,” Price said. “The girls were used to early playoff exits. I told them I don’t do early exits. We’ll play well into March, and we had to have players who bought in. They have. It all starts with our most experienced player, Maddie.”
Price has known the Wong family for decades. He worked under Wong’s father, Tony, in the 1990s at Folsom Prison.
“Saw Maddie grow and never imagined I’d be able to coach her,” Price said. “Very neat experience.”
Jay Benson has charted every basket, rebound and assist of Wong’s career. He is in his 20th season as the Thundering Herd’s scorekeeper and statistician. His son Brian Benson coached the Herd to some of their finest seasons, including a 24-5 season in 2005. Brian Benson’s last season as Elk Grove’s coach was 2008.
“What stands out to me about Maddie is her attitude,” Jay Benson said. “Always a great attitude. She’s smart and funny, and she cares.”
Wong cares about academics, too. She sports a 4.3 grade-point average and ponders studying chemistry or forensic science in college. But she doesn’t know where she will go. For now, the focus is on the last game.
Elk Grove players have studied film of Cajon, and they admit to a degree of anxious excitement about facing the unknown.
“I love this,” Wong said, grinning. “They don’t know us, what we do, and we don’t know them, so it’ll be fun. I’ll just do my thing.”