McClatchy girls’ winning tradition passed from one generation to next

Article By Ailene VoisinSacramento Bee

Those McClatchy High Lions are at it again, preparing for a CIF State Basketball Championship encounter against Windward on Friday evening, with a powerful, historical – and some would say generational – breeze at their backs.

Harvey Tahara. Jessica Kunisaki. Ariel Thomas. Jeff Ota. Tricia Ota. Gigi Garcia. Destiny Lee. For decades, the Lions have been an extended family affair, the rosters consisting of sisters, cousins, aunts, next-door neighbors, former preschool classmates and coaches who overview the girls squads, then hustle over and grab the boys practice notes.

McClatchy’s girls program, in particular, has flourished for years, capturing the school’s first state championship in 2015. And that parade on Freeport Boulevard? That was a bumper-to-bumper, gridlock-be-damned party for the ages. But now, two years after cleaning up the confetti outside Sacramento’s oldest and most stately city campus, the Lions will be tested again Friday at 6 p.m.: Can they hang a banner twice in three years? Can they overcome early jitters and their opponent, lay claim to Golden 1 Center located a mere three miles from school?

“The arena looks really cool on TV,” said senior Kamaree Donald, a reserve on the 2015 squad, “but I haven’t been there yet, and I don’t think too many of my teammates have, either.”

Friday’s matchup is fascinating on several levels. Let’s have some fun with this. This is North vs. South, a tale of two cities, and two sharply contrasting schools. Windward is a private institution for seventh through 12th grade located in West Los Angeles, near leafy and lovely UCLA, and within two miles of the beach. According to the school’s website: about 550 students are enrolled; 72 percent of the teachers hold master’s degrees; 100 percent of the students in 2015 went on to attend four-year colleges; and financial-aid awards have tripled since 2002.

Why is that last factoid so significant? Well, would you believe that tuition at Windward for 2016-17 – for one academic year, not four years of high school – is $37,245? Imagine what a teensy, weensy chunk of that change could do to refurbish McClatchy’s soccer and football fields, the track and tennis courts, all of which are in various states of disrepair? Or what about similar problems (include gopher infestation) at Kennedy, Hiram Johnson and the city’s other public schools?

In another lifetime, perhaps. While McClatchy parents have been in an uproar about the athletic facilities lately, there are no such qualms about academic inequities. The Lions, in fact, would welcome a battle of dueling IQ’s, volunteering graduates of their highly regarded Humanities and International Studies Program and distinguished alumni, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the late Congressman Bob Matsui, and author Joan Didion.

“I think we’re the most diverse school in the district,” said Lions athletic director Rob Feickert, referring to the school’s enrollment of 2,268 students and ethnic breakdown of African-Americans (10 percent), Asians (18 percent), Hispanics (39 percent), Caucasians (25 percent). “Our coach (Jeff Ota) graduated from McClatchy, and his name is on the record board hanging the wall. Jeff played for (legendary coach) Harvey Tahara when he coached the boys team, and until last year, he (Ota) coached the boys team.”

In other words, the names and the roles change, but everyone relates. The Lions’ den is an old home to many past and present attendees. During one recent practice, Aaron Garcia, the former Grant High/Arena Football League standout and father of freshman guard Bella and 2014-15 MVP Gigi Garcia, stood near the bleachers, caressing an infant. The father of senior Jordan Cruz wandered into the gym, accompanied by a large, fluffy dog that was surprisingly well behaved. Feickert wandered in with tickets for Friday’s game; he anticipates a healthy turnout.

On the court, it was business as usual – fast-paced drills, intense instruction, total concentration, occasional barking from Ota and his assistant Que Ngo, a Vietnamese native who also coaches in the Asian Leagues.

While the Lions’ 2015 state championship squad featured center Destiny Lee and the versatile Garcia, assisted by three small, terrific ballhandlers and shooters, the current squad is taller and faster. But as always, the plan is to play fast, score quickly, and defend like fiends. Regardless of size, the Lions swarm their opponents, their bodies pressing close, their arms constantly waving, pestering, their feet always moving.

Windward might be a small school in terms of enrollment, but the team is coached by former Stanford standout and WNBA player Vanessa Nygaard. So here is a hint: You can’t be timid and play for Tara VanDerveer. And after watching film of the opponent, Ota respects his opponent’s abilities on the offensive boards and the explosiveness of sophomore guard Charisma Osborne, who torched Ventura for 35 points last week in the Division I regional.

The main responsibility for containing Charisma falls to Courtesy Clark, a 5-foot-10 senior. “I’m at the head of the defense,” Clark said, nodding, “so that’s where our defense starts. But I’m excited. We’re all excited. Most of us have known each other a long time, or played together since we were kids.”

These are the Lions. Here they come, again.