Story by JIM McCUE | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH
Patience is a virtue, but it has been much more to the St. Francis High girls basketball team. Patience has been a mainstay and a primary ingredient to the team’s success in a season that has extended to its latest possible conclusion.
The Troubadours (29-5) will face perennial state power Brea Olinda-Brea (28-4) in the CIF Division I State Championship on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Sleep Train Arena “” and head coach Vic Pitton and company hope patience will once more pay off.
St. Francis advanced to the state final in large part because of the team’s collective patience. The Troubadours rebounded from a loss in the Sac-Joaquin Section Div. I final by earning a return trip to Sleep Train Arena for the Northern Regional final against Castro Valley. Pitton and his team could have expected to take advantage of playing in their “second home” “” the Troubadours were making their second postseason and third overall appearance in the 2015-16 season on the Sacramento Kings’ home floor “” but the Trojans raced out to a 30-18 lead at halftime despite playing in the NBA arena for the first time.
St. Francis struggled with the cavernous space and made just 7 of 38 first-half shots, including a dreadful 1-for-14 on 3-point shots. But the team never lost faith and preached patience at the intermission before roaring back for a convincing 66-52 victory.
Despite missing all eight of her first-half shot attempts, including five 3-point attempts, senior guard Janae Fairbrook knocked down 4 of 6 shots from beyond the arc after halftime to spark the Troubadours’ rally. Senior forward Lauren Craig scored 13 of her 16 points in the second half and St. Francis outscored Castro Valley 27-14 in the third quarter and never looked back.
Senior point guard Tia Hay led the team with 17 points and was her usual jack-of-all-trades self in guiding the Troubadours to their first state finals appearance in more than a quarter century. St. Francis won the 1993 Divi. III state title in the program’s only other trip to CIF State Championships.
Hay’s journey to the California state title game has been long “” literally and figuratively “” and has been a testament to her patience.
The senior transferred to St. Francis from Australia before the school year began and worked hard to acclimate to the team, academics and culture on campus. After signing to play collegiately at Colorado State in November, she helped the Troubadours to a 4-0 December start with her talent and enthusiasm, averaging more than 15 points and seven assists per game.
Then, Hay was forced to sit out for the remainder of the regular season, including a 14-0 Delta League campaign, due to a lengthy transfer review process. Finally, the Troubadours welcomed her back for the playoffs and she has been nothing short of spectacular. Hay was champing at the bit to hit the floor with her teammates and has come through to reward Pitton and the Troubadours for their patience with a postseason to remember. She has averaged 16.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 4.7 steals over seven games leading up to the state final.
The Wildcats have won nine state titles with a Division II crown in 2009 the most recent championship. Brea Olinda advanced to the Div. III final last year, but lost to Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland. Reili Richardson, the lone senior on the young roster, led the Wildcats with a game-high 27 points, including a perfect 17-for-17 free throws, in the SoCal final. She is supported by sophomore Tyiona Watkins and sophomore Jasmin Rachal.
In all, head coach Jeff Sink’s squad features seven sophomores and six freshmen, making this year’s state title run the potential start to another Brea Olinda dynasty. The Wildcats won four consecutive CIF state titles from 1991-94 and three straight from 1998-2000.
St. Francis has four players averaging double digits in scoring, led by Craig with 17.1 points per game to go along with a team-high 13.4 rebounds per game. She has recorded 30 double-doubles this season and has averaged a double-double in all three years as a starter. Fairbrook is averaging 11.5 points a game and is the Troubadours’ primary deep threat. The senior sharpshooter has made a team-high 83 long balls and is making 43 percent of her shots from beyond the arc.
Senior forward Kyra Huffman also averages 13.0 points per game and has added 7.2 rebounds per contest, but her biggest success in 2015-16 has just been returning to the court. Over the summer, Huffman tried to play through what she thought was just a cold. The illness was eventually diagnosed as viral meningitis and she spent more than two weeks in the hospital ICU before the school year started.