McClatchy ended Sac High’s 92-game Metro win streak. What can the Lions do next?
By TREVOR HORN | Contributor
After 40 years, legendary McClatchy High coach Harvey Tahara was ready to hang it up. With him on the bench was former Lions standout guard Jessica Kunisaki, to whom Tahara was ready to hand over the reins of the storied Sacramento program.
Kunisaki was just four years removed from her collegiate playing days at Chapman University in Orange when Tahara pulled her aside and gave her an offer she balked at, for no reason other than her own uncertainty, but one she couldn’t refuse.
Kunisaki spent the previous two seasons as the junior varsity coach for the Lions. Before the 2010-11 season began, Tahara informed Kunisaki that she was his choice to be the next head coach at her alma mater.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know, I’m too young. I can’t do it.’” Kunisaki, a 2004 McClatchy graduate, said. “But he said, ‘There’s never going to be a point in your life where you feel ready. So if there’s an opportunity, you’ve got to take it.’ And everything coach Tahara says, I’m all in.”
With that, the legend stepped away. Much like his coaching days, it was with a quiet and gentlemanly grace out of the world of coaching, only to witness first hand his understudy do something this season that he, and every other coach in the Metropolitan Conference, couldn’t do for nearly six seasons.
The Lions beat the Sacramento High Dragons.
For 92 games, a span of eight years and three days to be exact, Sacramento held reign over the Metro.
Then on Jan. 23, McClatchy — a team that has just one senior — outplayed the Dragons in every sense of the game, winning 54-29 and placing themselves at the top of the pecking order in their league and throughout the region.
“We believed in ourselves and believed that night we were going to get the win,” McClatchy junior point guard Lauren Nubla said.
The Lions perimeter defense held Sacramento’s shooters in check in large part to Nubla’s defense. Unheralded in the box score, Nubla has been the nucleus for the young group.
“When she gets going, everyone gets going,” McClatchy junior forward Destiney Lee said. “She’s the center of this team. I always say we (post players) do the physical work and she does the mental work. She may not be in the stat box as much, but she does the dirty work that normal players don’t do.”
Lee led the way with 17 points and 11 rebounds while freshman wing Jordan Cruz hit two 3-pointers and had 16 points in the monumental win for the 77-year-old school from the Land Park neighborhood just south of downtown Sacramento.
In her first two seasons as head coach, the Lions went a respectable 38-19 under Kunisaki. In 2011-12, McClatchy finished fourth in league and missed the playoffs. Last season, the Lions finished tied with Florin-Sacramento with a 9-5 league record, but fell in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Div. I playoffs to Pleasant Grove-Elk Grove.
“The loss sucked, but it made us want it that much more,” Nubla said.
Kunisaki knew there was still something special with the players she had returning, which included five of the top seven returning scorers.
“After that loss, I watched film and we took the girls in all summer and we just worked on them individually,” Kunisaki said. “We looked at their weakness and their strengths and what they were and tried to build upon that.”
The result, with just a couple weeks before the playoffs begin, has been near perfection. A loss to state powerhouse St. Mary’s-Stockton in a season-opening tournament has been the only blemish. McClatchy entered February on a 18-game win streak, sporting an overall record of 21-1.
The product on the court is a direct result of the tireless hours the players put in during the offseason.
For Lee, it has also been a welcomed sense of accomplishment after her first two seasons were not a “good experience” for her.
Lee said she didn’t feel a sense of togetherness with the team as a freshmen and the leadership hadn’t formulated for her and Nubla. Both were on varsity as freshmen two seasons ago.
Now they are the elder statesmen and are joined by three sophomores and two freshmen who have provided the main scoring threats this season.
“Now it’s a shared, equal responsibility,” Lee said. “Everyone shares and does their part because we all want it.”
The addition of freshmen Cruz and Ka’Maree Donald have added to the mix for a solid core of young players. Cruz and sophomore Gigi Garcia are the next leading scorers on the team behind Lee.
Of the top seven scorers on this season’s team, all have the chance to be four-year varsity players.
SISTERS IN ARMS
Lee, Nubla, Garcia and twin sisters Kelsey and Kristi Wong were all varsity players as freshman.
The bond built early for the group has turned into a family environment for the team.
“We are super close,” Garcia said. “I call them my sisters. We talk every day. We text 24-7.”
Added Nubla: “I’ve played on countless teams since I was five-years old and I’ve never been on a team that was so close knit. We go to each other for everything, on and off the court.”
For Kunisaki, that togetherness has also brought an unselfishness that has become what the coach believes is the defining factor for the great success to this season.
“It’s crazy because we are probably two-deep at each position,” Kunisaki said. “Then we can have different types of games going. It doesn’t matter if anyone is having an off day. We just put someone else in that position and they’ll perform. Everyone knows their roles. Whatever type of game we need, we can have.”
Beating the Dragons was “amazing,” Garcia said. But the sophomore forward and daughter of long time Arena League quarterback Aaron Garcia and former Sacramento State women’s basketball standout Shelby Boudreaux, the season culmination will come with what they do the second time around against Sacramento, and how they perform in the playoffs.
“Now we are ready to move on and get to the next step,” Garcia said. “We still have to play them again and they will play ten-times harder.”
McClatchy’s only section title came in 2007.
Tahara was in attendance when McClatchy beat Sacramento last month. His advice to Kunisaki was “to enjoy the journey.”
A superstitious person, Kunisaki spends a lot of time visualizing performances and is a student of repetitive rituals during the season, which she has instilled into her players.
“It’s been so fun,” Kunisaki said of the season. “I tell the girls, ‘I’m so lucky.’ I have a good group. Everything has been really special.”
The success of the team will be determined its depth and the character of the players as the postseason begins, something Nubla feels gives the Lions a competitive advantage for a run at a title.
“I know there are incredible teams out there,” Nubla said. “But regardless of talent, they don’t always get along. That’s what’s so special. We are one unit.”
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