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Thrilling state championship win made McClatchy the most accomplished girls team in school & district history   By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor  ... Lion Heart

Thrilling state championship win made McClatchy the most accomplished girls team in school & district history

  By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor

  The measuring stick for McClatchy High sports, especially girls basketball, has been the 2007 Lions team. 

  Under the direction of longtime coaching legend Harvey Tahara, McClatchy compiled a 26-7 record before falling to Berkeley in the Northern California regional final. That team came within one game of competing for a state championship.

  “We have always wanted to accomplish what the 2007 team did,” senior point guard Lauren Nubla said reflecting on her team’s 2015 CIF Division I State Championship victory over Serra-Gardena on March 27. “I don’t think it has hit me yet how much we accomplished, but now we are ‘that team.’”

  That team finished the season 27-7 and won more games in a season than any previous Lions team before them. That team brought the first state title in any sport to the 78-year-old school, as well as the first girls state championship in Sacramento City Unified School District history. It’s now a team which will forever have a special place at McClatchy and in the Land Park community.

  “This was a really special team,” said head coach Jessica Kunisaki, a McClatchy alum who played under Tahara. “They love each other and they play for each other, for the school, for their families, for the coaches and for the community.”

  McClatchy endured an up-and-down game to outlast Serra 65-61 in double overtime to win the Division I state title at Haas Pavilion on the Cal-Berkeley campus. The Lions trailed 14-3 to start the game and then built a lead in the fourth quarter only to see a 10-point advantage disappear in the final 1:10 of regulation. Kunisaki’s squad had to shake off the miraculous comeback and refocus on what it set out to do from before Day One.

  “Gigi GarciaIt was a real roller-coaster today, but we stayed composed, stayed confident and stuck to the game plan,” Kunisaki said after the game.

  The game plan, since the Lions fell to Berkeley in the 2014 NorCal quarterfinals, was to win a state title. Kunisaki had 10 players returning from that team and there was no doubt offered from anyone on the team or coaching staff about the 2015 goal.

  To a player, the bond that kept the Lions’ eyes on the prize — through the roller-coaster ride that was the 2014-15 season — was a family bond. McClatchy breaks every huddle with a “Family on three” shout that is more of a heart-felt statement than a reminder.

  Senior Destiney Lee nearly did not get the opportunity to help her basketball family on the court as the UNLV signee missed most of the season with a stress fracture in her foot. But she accepted her role as a spark off the bench in the playoffs and played through pain to contribute 12 points and seven rebounds in the state title game.

  “I worried about how I was going to play injured,” Lee said of returning to the team for the postseason. “But I knew that I had to pull it out for my team. I love them so much, so I had to pull it out for them.”

  Just as Lee, who was expected to be a primary contributor as part of a one-two front court punch with junior Gigi Garcia, found her role in the Lions’ family, so did everyone else on the roster.

  “No one cared about how it got done as long as it got done,” Kunisaki said of her ego-less team. “They took in their roles and made the necessary sacrifices to succeed.”

  Garcia may have assumed the role of the go-to inside player on offense and defense, but McClatchy always found plenty of support from the rest of the roster to make it to theLauren Nubla state championship game. Nubla quarterbacked the offense and teamed with twins Kristi and Kelsey Wong to hound opponents with a suffocating pressure defense to win games. Junior Jordan Cruz stepped up in the NorCal final to lead all scorers with 19 points, including clutch 3-pointers and free throws, to down Sac-Joaquin Section foe Oak Ridge. Each game saw family members raise their game to move the Lions to the next step of the season-long process.

  In the state final, though, Garcia may have put together her greatest effort on the biggest stage. The junior forward scored 19 tough points, hauled in 20 rebounds, added six blocks and played a big role in finally securing the championship victory.

  “I have not seen anyone better than Gigi,” Kunisaki said of her talented post player, who will be back for one more year at McClatchy. “She just dominated the second overtime and has been our rock defensively.”

  Garcia was emotional after the win, touched by the effort put forth by her teammates on the court, and by her father — a former standout Arena Football League quarterback — flying in from Las Vegas (where he coaches the AFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws) to see her play her biggest game ever.

  “We talk about family all of the time, and we are a true family,” she said of the Lions. “I love all of them.”

  Love and family carried McClatchy throughout a season that mirrored the roller-coaster ride that was the state final. With their sights set on the biggest prize, the Lions embarked on a challenging early schedule that included the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix and the West Coast Jamboree in the Bay Area. McClatchy lost four consecutive games, including a pair of close defeats over the two December tournaments. The grind led to a battle-tested group that entered Metropolitan League play with a pedestrian-looking record of 5-5.

“We knew it would be tough,” Nubla said of the early season schedule, “But had we not had that experience, then I don’t think that we would have been prepared for the state final.”

  The Lions rolled through the Metro League with a perfect 14-0 mark and suffered only one nonleague loss in 2015 (a 78-55 setback against Pinewood-Los Altos Hills at the MLK Showcase in Stockton) before entering the section playoffs with aspirations of unseating state No. 1 and eventual Open Division state champion, St. Mary’s-Stockton.

  The Rams handed the Lions a convincing defeat in the SJS Div. I title game — the parallel to Serra’s miraculous 10-point comeback in 70 seconds — to give Kunisaki’s squad a gut check before facing the gauntlet that was the state’s Division I bracket.

  “It was easier to face adversity because we are so close,” Nubla said of rebounding from the St. Mary’s loss and the Serra comeback. “We saw other teams face adversity and break down because they started to point fingers.

  “But no one on this team put themselves above anyone else because we were all in it for each other.”

  That quality made the 2015 McClatchy girls basketball family the CIF State Division I champions. 

  And it made the Lions “that team” for all future McClatchy teams to aspire to.

Destiney Lee hugs Gigi Garcia

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