West Campus Girls Hoops Begins A New Era In 2017-18 — One As A Defending State Champ •
Story by CLAY KALLAM | Photos by DAVE LAWICKA
Northern Illinois. Eastern Washington. Western Michigan …
In the world of collegiate sports, these fine institutions are known as “directionals,” and their primary role is to serve as cannon fodder for the USCs and Notre Dames of the world. They are out there on the edge of Division I, on the periphery of relevance, and though occasionally they can jump up and bite their betters, they’re not programs to be taken seriously.
Up until 2002, Sacramento’s West Campus High didn’t even have its own identity – it was a satellite of Hiram Johnson, and though it was indeed a mile or so west of Hiram Johnson, in terms of Sacramento itself, West Campus is, well, in the east.
In other words, we’re not talking a ton of respect for the magnet school of 800 students, which is in the Sac-Joaquin Section’s Division IV — or at least, we weren’t until the girls basketball team won a state championship last spring.
But the journey from the outskirts of athletic relevance to the center of attention was not an overnight trip — coach John Langston is entering his ninth year at West Campus, and he took no shortcuts.
“If you breed something,” he says, “you will birth something,” and though his teams were immediately successful in terms of wins and losses, it took time to instill the values that were the foundation of that state title.
The issue was never success in the Golden Empire League, as West Campus is 85-5 since Langston took over in 2009, but rather moving on in the Division IV playoffs. Even though the team qualified for NorCals in Langston’s third year, it never got past the second round — colliding with powers like St. Mary’s-Berkeley and Salesian-Richmond — until 2017.
“We have a six-week running program in the summer,” says Langston, “on the field. No basketballs. We’ve been doing that since I got here — that’s who we are.”
And then Langston, who is set to win his 200th game at West Campus when the school rings up its first win in 2017-18, takes that conditioning and applies it full court. “We play baseline to baseline, man-to-man,” he says, “and we will trap you. If you can’t dribble, it’s going to be a long game for you.”
Why man-to-man instead of the trapping 2-2-1 zone that has been the press of choice in recent years? “I’m a man-to-man guy because if I don’t teach you to play man-to-man, when you play the best players, you get beat.”
On offense, Langston relies on a read-and-react system that, yes, takes more than a season or three to install and run efficiently. “Everybody has to handle the basketball,” says Langston, and players have the freedom to attack their defender whenever an opportunity presents itself. “If you’re good at what you do, why not do it?”
That said, the ability of individual players such as this year’s senior stars, Kiara Jefferson and Nia Johnson, has to be part of a bigger picture. “If you can’t play team basketball, you can’t play for me,” he says.
But “me” is not something Langston focuses on. “I have absolutely nothing on my desk (about basketball),” says Langston, who is a youth specialist at Success Academy in Sacramento. “Too often coaches want to be the focal point, but when the game starts, I tell the girls ‘It’s time for you to play, not for me to coach’.”
Along that line, the read-and-react West Campus offense does not have a rigid structure. “It’s hard for you to scout my team if we don’t have a set offense.”
There is one obvious aspect of Langston’s teams, though — lack of size. Even though he coached 6-4 Vicki Baugh (who played in the WNBA) while he was at Sacramento High School, his West Campus teams have been vertically challenged. “We haven’t had a 6-foot girl since I’ve been here,” he said, though his defensive pressure and offensive system have produced a .778 winning percentage despite smaller players.
That will be one of several challenges facing the 2017-18 iteration of the team, as leading rebounder and scorer Namiko Adams graduated along with Nadia Johnson (now at Cal State Bakersfield). But Jefferson (who committed to UCLA on Oct. 5) and Nia Johnson, Nadia’s younger sister, are ready to take charge of a young roster.
“The newcomers don’t have the grit we have,” says Jefferson, “or the perspective.”
Both were ramped up after the 2016 loss to St. Mary’s-Berkeley in the second round of NorCals. “We got into a mentality of winning after that,” says Jefferson. “We knew what we had to do.”
Langston’s demanding summer conditioning program was just the beginning, but the team bought in. “It was crazy,” says Jefferson, “but it paid off.”
Nia Johnson transferred from Antelope after the 2015-16 season, and was on board in time for the six weeks of running. “It was so much harder,” she says, but since she styles herself as a player who does the dirty work, she happily made the adjustment.
But now, after that state title, both Jefferson and Johnson know there’s a target on their backs, and teams will be coming after West Campus every time out. After all, what better way to create a reputation than to beat a California champion?
And yes, that means that West Campus has moved out of the “directional” category, in from the outskirts, and now is firmly planted at the center of any discussion about girls basketball in Northern California. “When you talk about teams in Sacramento,” says Langston, “West Campus has to be in the top three” — but that kind of success will only make things harder this year.
Changes at the CIF level mean that once West Campus advances out of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, it will no longer be considered a “smaller” school. Teams will be seeded in NorCals solely on ability, which means West Campus could conceivably wind up in the Open Division with national powers like Archbishop Mitty-San Jose and St. Mary’s-Stockton, and, even if that bullet is dodged, is otherwise a lock for Division I.
“We have to build on what we have, not what we want,” says Langston as he looks ahead to a season without five graduated seniors and a roster with no one over 5-11. “Let’s get it done.”
Jefferson and Nia Johnson are on the same page. “I’m ready for the battle,” says Johnson, and Jefferson doesn’t care who the opponents are. “I’m not worried about it,” she says — and why should she be?
The “directional” is a defending state champion, an upstart no longer, and when it comes to girls basketball, right in the center of everything.