Loaded with senior talent at nearly ever position, Sacramento isn’t shy about seeking a state title.
By TREVOR HORN | Contributor
The Sacramento High girls basketball team is no stranger to winning.
The numbers have added up over the years.
The Dragons have reached a Sac-Joaquin Section title game every year since 2004, bringing home four titles, including the 2012-13 Division II title and back-to-back Div. III crowns the previous two seasons.
The queens of the Metro League (a current 91-game league winning streak) have it all, except one thing, a state title to hang up along with the section titles. The Dragons beat league rival Florin-Sacramento 48-37 for the program’s fourth consecutive section banner in March.
Led by seventh-year coach Michele Massari, and five seniors that signed Division-I college scholarships last month, will it finally all come together this season?
“This is a very important year,” Dragons senior center Ayanna Edwards said. “I want to finish out with a bang. We work so hard.”
Along with Edwards, who is headed to Arizona State, fellow seniors Najah Queenland (Pacific), Zoynia Cormier (Cal Poly) and Simone Sheppard (UNLV) will take the court this season without Chaya Durr (UC Santa Barbara), who is out with a torn ACL suffered over the summer.
“We will pick up the pieces and we will play hard for (Durr),” Massari said. “You cannot replace what she brings. She literally won games for us single-handedly.”
The group of seniors is special to Massari, and not just because of their accolades and talent on the court.
“All of them are a 3.6 (GPA) or higher (students),” Massari said. “All are in an honors class or an AP class. We are the only school that represent the name Sacramento, and that’s a lot of pride.”
Sheppard is in her first season playing for the Dragons after starring her freshman and sophomore seasons at El Camino-Sacramento. She was forced to sit out her entire junior year because of section transfer rules. The season was rough on the talented forward.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for so many years,” Sheppard said of her chance to become a Dragon. “Being able to play for Michelle has opened many more doors for me. I love my school, my teammates and my coach.”
Sheppard’s freshman season at El Camino came during the final season for legendary coach Bill Baxter. Now an assistant coach at Sacramento State, Baxter and Massari are close friends and comparable in many facets as coaches.
“Bill and I are exactly the same,” Massari said. “We are yellers, screamers, animated, loud and demanding.”
The one year under Baxter and years being coached by Massari in AAU made for an easy transition for Sheppard.
“I think she was used to that,” Massari said.
Queenland played at Sac High her freshman year before starting at rival St. Francis-Sacramento for two seasons. Now back for the Dragons, the combination of her and Cormier in the backcourt will be lethal for Sacramento in the absence of Durr this season.
“Your senior year is supposed to be the best year of your high school career,” Queenland said. “I feel that by playing on this team I get better every day.”
The guard also brings a fantastic work ethic and an amazing 4.26 GPA to the Dragons.
“My mom always told me ‘You could get hurt tomorrow and never play basketball again. What you have to do is get good grades,’” Queenland said. “I’m really glad she told me that.”
But sitting in the stands watching Sac High win section titles without her the last two seasons tore at Queenland.
“She watched us at Sleep Train (Arena) and we would tease her that she should be here for all of it,” Massari said. “She brings a toughness every day and leadership to this team.”
Only Edwards has played all four seasons on varsity for the Dragons. The affable 6-foot-4 senior is a highly-recruited player. But it all came back to reality when her parents filed for divorce after 17 years of marriage. As the oldest of five children, Edwards, who is affectionately called “Shaq” by everyone around her, took time away from basketball and recruiting to clear up her personal life.
Edwards leaned on Massari for help and guidance during the troubling time. During an important summer of AAU basketball and the fall recruiting period before her junior season, Edwards was “MIA” from the basketball world.
“She lived with me for a while,” Massari said. “She spent Christmas with my family. My parents came down for her signing day. She became like a family member. She has a special place in my heart because we have been through so much.”
Once Edwards was able to concentrate on school, basketball and the whirlwind recruiting process, she found that the time away meant lost scholarship offers. But one program stayed and is a big reason why she signed.
Edwards said that the first thing the Arizona State coaching staff asked when they spoke again was “How my family was doing and how I was doing on a personal level.”
“That was different, they cared about me as a person,” she added.
Winning championships is a perk of the job coaching at Sac High.
“This isn’t just a normal high school. This is the basketball mecca,” Massari said. “For a player to come here and play, it takes guts.”
But the most rewarding part of the gig to the former Nevada Union-Grass Valley standout is giving players, like these five seniors, a chance to improve their lives on and off the court with a college education.
“When it comes down to the next point in my career, I’m not going to remember the wins and losses as much,” Massari said. “But I will remember every place that a kid goes to.”
The Dragons lost in the opening round of the CIF Open Division playoffs to St. Mary’s-Berkeley last March. A tough memory, but a learning experience for a talented team that’s shooting for a state title run.
“This is going to be an amazing year,” Sheppard said. “We are winning state this year. It’s just going to be cool.”
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