The theme of the CIF state championships in Division 1 on Friday at the Golden Center for both boys & girls was about longtime successful coaches winning their first state crowns. The Damien of La Verne boys also broke a streak of five straight wins for Northern California teams and showed the gap between the top level squads in the CIF Southern Section and the rest of the state in D1. Other winners were Salesian of Richmond (D1 girls), Pleasant Valley of Chico (D3 boys), Oakland Tech (D3 girls), Stuart Hall of San Francisco (D5 boys) & San Domenico of San Anselmo (D5 girls).
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Note: Our lead boys basketball analyst, Ronnie Flores, did the writeup for Division I boys & D3 boys. Our lead girls basketball analyst, Harold Abend, did the breakdowns for Division I girls & D5 girls. Editor and publisher Mark Tennis did the rest.
Boys Division I
Damien (La Verne) 65, Clovis North (Fresno) 57
This game showed what we’ve known for many seasons: The CIF Southern Section open playoff teams are a notch above the rest of the state.
How teams fare in that playoff pool play system determines plenty of what will happen during the regionals. The result of this game showed what we learned tonight: the Broncos, the No. 13 seed in the NorCal regional, wouldn’t have likely made their terrific run as part of the SoCal D1 bracket.
Right out of the gate, Damien (32-4) showed it was the bigger, faster and more athletic team. Clovis North (22-12) did use its full court press to create a couple of turnovers, but for the most part Damien broke the pressure and sprinted to the rim for easy looks and buckets.
Coach Mike LeDuc’s club, representing SoCal, went up 9-3, then 16-6 and 22-12 after one period. The Broncos, representing NorCal, showed signs of life in the second quarter, but it seemed as whenever Clovis North put together back-to-back baskets, the Spartans answered or got an easy put back off a breakaway shot. Damien, which went 1-2 in CIFSS open pool play before dropping down to the No. 1 seed in the SoCal D1 regional with five other section open entrants in the SoCal open playoffs, led the CIF Central Section’s fourth place team, 33-22, at intermission.
In the third period, Clovis North’s Christian Cavillo hit a corner 3-pointer, then a Damien turnover led to a Connor Amundsen lay-in. That made the score 35-27, but from there forward it was all Spartans. The only time the Broncos got their deficit under 10 points again was with 30 seconds remaining in the game when junior Jaylen Bryant softly banked in a lay-up with no resistance. By then, the outcome was decided, as the only thing left was to see how the foul game would play out and what starters were left on the court when the Spartans celebrated the school’s first CIF state crown their veteran coach.
In his illustrious 42-year coaching career, Leduc has accumulated 1,018 coaching wins and tonight was his first one that ended with his team hoisting a CIF state crown. Damien won a CIF D3 title in 2015 under current St. John Bosco of Bellflower coach Matt Dunn, while Clovis North was making its first CIF state title game appearance.
“It feels great, but it’s not about me, it’s about these guys,” LeDuc said. “The significant difference (about this team) is that they never really got a break between the spring season and now. It was an unusual team in that we only really played five guys. It was an unusual burden and to be able to handle that and succeed was great.”
While the coach, like every other coach we’ve ever covered who has achieved milestone wins, requested not to have any attention, the Damien players were more than happy to talk about him.
“I want to be the best person possible because of him,” said Spivey Word, one of two seniors in the backcourt who made a big difference.
Word finished with 17 points and three steals and Colorado-bound R.J. Smith had 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals. Those points and steals seemed to come at the most opportune time for a team that could afford a few more mistakes than its smaller opponent. Kaleb Smith also had a big game, as the 6-foot-8 forward scored a team-high 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. Clovis North just couldn’t afford the UC-Riverside-bound talent to hit 2-of-3 on 3-pointers. Junior center Jimmy Oladokun didn’t have a big offensive night, but his four blocks and presence in the paint played a vital role in a collective team effort.
LeDuc’s team has battled some of the state’s very best in the open division era, and he had some terrific teams and individual talents before the open era at Glendora, including two Mr. Basketball choices in Tracy Murray (1989) and Casey Jacobsen (1989). Murray led the Tartans to the D2 state final in his senior year and scored 64 points in a loss to Menlo-Atherton. LeDuc is now 1-1 in state title games, so it’s ironic because Friday night’s performance was a total team effort.
Damien, which also out-rebounded Clovis North, 35-27, is the first CIF state champion from the San Gabriel Valley at the open/D1 level.
As for Clovis North, it was a terrific run that included multiple come-from-behind victories on the road. It won every regional playoff game on the road, but as we stated in our preview, the Broncos couldn’t afford a slow start and that’s exactly what transpired. Sophomore point guard Amundsen led the Broncos with 25 points in 10-of-19 shooting from the field. The son of coach Tony Amundsen made 2-of-5 on 3-pointers and also contributed five rebounds and four assists. In order to pull off the upset, the Broncos needed a huge offensive performance from a second player.
“We were on the road a lot, and someone gave us the nickname ‘Road Warriors’,” said coach Amundsen, who took his team according to one reporters’ estimate 1,850 miles in the regionals and state final. “We used that to our advantage. It was always us against the other team’s fans.”
That never materialized.
Bryant finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, while sophomore Jordan Espinoza added 10 points, six rebounds and three steals.
Damien, which came into the week ranked No. 5 in the state, will actually finish higher in the final state rankings than two teams selected over the Spartans for the CIFSS open division playoffs: Bishop Montgomery of Torrance and Mater Dei of Santa Ana.
In the competitive equity era, that’s just how the chips fall sometimes and fortunately for Damien, it’s combination of veteran coaching and talent was just too much for any team in D1 to deal with.
Girls Division I
Salesian (Richmond) 62, Windward (Los Angeles) 51
For Salesian head coach Stephen Pezzola, the variation of the old cliché “the third time is a charm” works just fine because for the Pride and their affable leader the fourth time is a charm. The reason is after three unsuccessful CIF state championship title game appearances Salesian has found paydirt after a 62-51 victory by the Northern Regional D1 top-seeded Pride over Windward.
“The fourth time is certainly a charm,” said Pezzola with a huge grin.
With the win, coupled with a San Domenico win in the D5 girls game and an Oakland Tech victory in D3, not only did Northern California sweep all three girls CIF state championships contested on Friday, but two of the three winners were from the CIF North Coast Section. Including wins by the Stuart Hall-San Francisco in the boys D5 game and a Pleasant Valley-Chico win in the boys D3 game, the NCS won four of the six games and NorCal snagged five of six on day one at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
Salesian (21-5) came out ice cold, forcing shots both in the paint and outside the arc, but despite missing all eight three-point shots and shooting 11-of-40 overall from the field, they still scratched out a 25-22 halftime lead on a shot at the buzzer by senior Nevaeh Asiasi.
The Pride gave up the lead at 26-25 in the early third quarter, but it was short-lived as from there they turned it up a notch on both ends of the floor, and after a 23-8 run they took a 48-34 lead into the final period. At that point it was pretty obvious Salesian was the deeper team and the outcome seemed inevitable, although Windward played all out until the final buzzer.
“All season long our motto has been strength in numbers,” Pezzola remarked. “Tonight we played 12 girls but we have 14 girls and they can all play.”
Windward (23-11) had 10 girls see action but four of them got into the game with 23 seconds left.
“We just couldn’t match their depth and size,” said first-year head coach Ronald Cass, who took over the program when the team was 16-6 and Vanessa Nygaard left a second time to take a WNBA head coaching job with the Phoenix Mercury.
The girl that gave Windward the most trouble with her size was 6-foot-1 post Silivia “Via” Fonongaloa.
After battling several maladies that sapped her energy a good portion of the season, Fonongaloa continued her re-energized performances since the start of the Northern Regional playoffs. Via led the way against Windward with a double-double 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“I feel like I came back and really got myself together for the playoffs,” Fonongaloa said.
Fonongaloa was aware of her size advantage and when asked in the press conference following the game if she knew coming in Windward wouldn’t be able to stop her in the paint, she hesitated a moment before responding “yep” which drew a roar of laughter from her Pride teammates.
Two other Pride players were in double figure scoring. Asiasi battled foul trouble and fouled out late when the outcome had been decided. Before exiting she finished with a very solid 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The team’s leading scorer, junior Makiah Asidanya, was just over her 10.4 points per game average with 11 points.
Southern Regional No. 4 seed Windward was making its sixth appearance in a CIF state championship. The loss drops the Wildcats to 3-3.
“”We faced a lot of adversity this season,” said Princeton-committed junior Skye Belker. “New coaches, COVID, and a lack of size, but we fought hard and showed up ready to work every day. I’m proud to call these girls my sisters.”
In closing out the post-game press conference Pezzola’s final statement was about the total team effort.
“We had 14 players and each of them deserved to start a basketball game,” Pezzola said. “We had a lot of girls step up. They really played for one another, not for each other. Everyone we put in did the job.”
That completed job that came from the total team effort has now produced a CIF state championship.
Division III Boys
Pleasant Valley (Chico) 57, Venice 53
The Vikings of Pleasant Valley didn’t have a lot going for them to begin their contest against the tough, battle-tested Gondos of Venice. They were quickly down 10-0 while their SoCal opponent was nailing long-range 3-pointers on an NBA court. Coach Tim Keating and his top players actually felt good despite trailing at halftime and a big second half after they settled down propelled the Vikings’ program to their second CIF state title in five years. All but two of the players on Pleasant Valley’s roster were in attendance when the program won the D3 state title in 2018 and felt that experience as middle schoolers, along with the supportive crowd on hand in the schools’ second CIF state title appearance, made a difference.
“We knew we wanted to do this again,” said Pleasant Valley’s Kevin Kremer, one of three Vikings in double digit scoring whose older brother Kevin was the star of the 2018 team and that season’s D3 state player of the year. “He’s always had that on me, so I wanted to throw that back at him. It made a difference.”
Venice (21-9) came out hot from the outside, nailing five 3-pointers in the first quarter, as the L.A. City Section representative led 21-10 after one period. In the second quarter, Pleasant Valley (31-3) adjusted to the Gondoliers’ trapping, three-quarter court press and half-court zone defense and started finding soft spots in the middle for easy attempts or driving buckets. Ned Joyce’s 3-pointer cut the Vikings’ deficit to five (28-23) and from there it seemed as if the Northern Section D3 champs woke up, got comfortable and realized they could get quality shots on most of their possessions.
Venice’s Tyler Hunt scored inside right before the half to give Venice a 31-28 lead. Despite trailing at halftime, 31-28, it felt as if Pleasant Valley had the positive momentum. After all, it made 1-of-6 free throws in the first half, while the Gondos made 6-of-13 on 3-pointers, including 3-of-4 by senior Oscar Lopez.
“We told ourselves it is a 32-minute game and we were going to play to the end,” Pleasant Valley’s Noah Thomas said about his team’s halftime deficit in light of the lethargic start.
Pleasant Valley got its first tie at 33-33, then Lopez hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game to put Venice right back in front. The Vikings took their first lead, 40-38, at 2:37 of the 3rd period on a Thomas 3-pointer and the Gondos promptly turned it over on their next possession. Pleasant Valley was seemingly in control the rest of the game, but Venice wasn’t done. After all, it battled a week-long COVID-19 pause, strict daily LAUSD testing and a tough schedule to represent SoCal as a No. 5 seed in the school’s first state final appearance. Lopez’s fifth and final 3-pointer with 3:52 to go gave Venice a 53-50 lead.
Joyce’s driving layup cut the Vikings’ deficit to 53-52 and he hit his only 3-pointer of the second half with 1:52 remaining to give his team a 55-53 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. With 39.3 seconds remaining, Pleasant Valley came up with a big offensive rebound and Thomas was eventually fouled with 25.7 seconds remaining. Remember the abysmal free throw shooting in the first half? It was a distant memory when Thomas canned both free throws to ice the game, as the Gondos didn’t get a clean look on their final possession as Pleasant Valley was able to play aggressively with a foul to give before the bonus.
“I was a little nervous, but then when I got to the line I told myself,’Nah, I got this,” said Thomas, who finished with a game-high 24 points and four assists. Joyce had 14 points, including 4-of-7 on 3-pointers, and Kremer showed his older brother what he could do with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Pleasant Valley out-rebounded the Gondos, 38-22, including 19 offensive rebounds to seven.
Hunt, a terrific sophomore who impacts the game inside, on the perimeter and on defense, led Venice as he did all season with 22 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. Lopez had 15 points on the five triples.
“Tyler really plays both ends of the court and has averaged a double-double pretty much the whole season,” Venice coach David Galley said. “Their rebounding hurt us and Pleasant Valley is as well-coached a team as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Division III Girls
Oakland Tech 39, La Salle (Pasadena) 33
It was an interesting vibe from the Tech coaches and some players after they defeated the Lancers for their fourth CIF state title with the last one coming in 2019 in D4 and without a possible another one from 2020 in D2 (when the NorCal champ Bulldogs couldn’t play in that final).
While they were excited to have won the state crown, it’s clear they would have preferred simply to be considered as a D1 school and ranked among the D1 state and NorCal heavyweights.
“We have now won state titles in D4 and D2, but they need to put us where we need to go,” said Bulldogs’ head coach LeRoy Hurt, who’s team finished 21-11 with all of those losses to teams in D2 or D1 with most of them to D1/Open Division powerhouses.
With less than a minute left, there was a big question whether the postgame celebration was going to be held for La Salle. The Lancers had cut into a 31-26 lead early in the fourth quarter and had the ball for a possible go-ahead bucket at 34-33. After a missed three-pointer, though, Tech got the huge bucket it needed with 14.1 seconds left on an off-balance three-pointer by Mari Somvichian. There was then an additional steal and basket at the buzzer for Tech’s six-point triumph.
Erin Sellers was the only Tech player in double-figures with 11 points. Center Sophia Askew-Goncalves had 12 rebounds and eight points. La Salle standout Audrey Chen was held below her season scoring average, but still had a game-high 13 points. Teammate Ryann Riddle also shined for the Lancers with 10 points.
Before the game began, the Lancers (31-3) were struck with some adversity when Ellie Chen, the junior sister of sophomore Audrey, suffered an aggravation of a knee injury during pre-game warm-ups. She did not play at all in Friday’s game.
Despite that setback, La Salle led the Bulldogs 19-16 at halftime. Tech used defensive pressure to force turnovers and outscored the Lancers 13-6 in the third quarter.
“You can’t write enough inches about Elle Chen,” said La Salle head coach Scott Wiard, who was joined on the bench with his father, assistant coach Richard Wiard, the former State Coach of the Year from Bishop Amat of La Puente. “They had good players who make plays and they made plays at the end.”
In beating La Salle, Tech also notched its second straight win over a team with 30 wins or more following the NorCal region triumph over Lincoln of Lincoln.
“Lincoln was rocking,” Hurt said. “That was like one of the biggest sporting events ever there. They could have beaten us easily. As I said before, a lot of people picked us to win, but it’s not as easy as people think.”
Two final notes: This was the lowest scoring D3 girls state final ever. It also was impossible to not to notice that the Oakland Tech athletic director is now Alexis Gray-Lawson, who was a McDonald’s All-American when the Bulldogs won back-to-back CIF D1 state titles in 2006-07. “It’s great to have her,” Hurt said.
Division V Boys
Stuart Hall (San Francisco) 56, Chaffey (Ontario) 45
After falling short in the CIF D4 title game from 2018 in a loss to View Park of Los Angeles, the Knights picked up their school’s first CIF state crown with a win over the Tigers.
Chaffey head coach Erik Crull perhaps summed it up best in the post-game press conference.
“It was a tale of them making shots and us not making shots,” he said. “We also had a little lull in our effort at times in the first half.”
Those making shots for Stuart Hall were senior guards Brandon Lum and Jackson Jung. Lum made four 3-pointers (including a four-point play in the first half) and had a game-high 25 points. Jung also hit on four from 3-point land and scored 17 points.
The Knights (23-12) clearly benefitted from the high-level competition they faced in the Bay Counties League (including teams from much higher region division playoffs such as University of San Francisco) and from being able to play and practice at more spacious Kezar Pavilion.
“It kind of gets us used to it,” Lum said about shooting in the big arena. “It was a big advantage.”
Chaffey (23-13) gained a reputation as a comeback team in the regional playoffs. The Tigers did play much better in the second half but the closest they were able to get was nine points. They were led by senior guard Tyler Terry with 13 points and three assists.
Senior guard Sterlin Luddington-Simmons shared a text with head coach Charles Johnson before the season that said he was working hard and that he was thinking “state.”
“There were teams that were better than us in league, but part of that is that me and the kids were not together for three weeks (COVID),” Johnson said. “The whole thing with divisions and the draw is that you just don’t know from one season to the next. It just is what it is. I will say that for a small school like us there is only one way to go and that’s up.”
Division V Girls
San Domenico (San Anselmo) 38,
Shalhevet (Los Angeles) 27
With what appeared to be the entire student body in attendance and cheering loudly for their team from the opening tipoff to the final buzzer, tiny San Domenico (24-11) won its first ever CIF state championship with a victory over Shalhevet. It also was the lowest scoring Division V game since the CIF added Division V in 1988 and the 65 combined points tied the 2013 Division II championship game won 39-25 by Lynwood for the lowest combined points in CIF state history.
“The crowd was really into it and we could feel their energy,” said San Domenico senior Piper Fleece.
Despite the roars of the crowd, San Domenico was ice cold to start but Shalhevet wasn’t exactly on fire. The Northern Regional champion Panthers missed their first 11 shots and didn’t score until 53 seconds were left in the first quarter, but at that point they only trailed 7-0 and the first quarter ended with a 7-4 deficit.
San Domenico finally took the lead at 16-15 with 6:18 left in the third quarter on a three-pointer by Fleece, and they stretched it to 22-17, but although the Panthers were never able to take another lead, Shalhevet hung tough and only trailed 24-21 entering the final period. Part of the reason Shalhevet was able to stay in it was the two best players for San Domenico, junior Polish exchange student Maja Cykowska and sophomore guard Summer Jenkins, picked up their fourth fouls at 4:40 and 4:08 of the third quarter, respectively.
“I was not too happy with Summer,” said San Domenico head coach Mike Fulton. “When she sits we’re not the same team.”
Shalhevet got to within one at 24-23 but the San Domenico reserves held the fort.
“I had some role players, Avery Conklin, Mina Swain, and Mattie Greenstone that came in off the bench,” Fulton said. “We kept playing defense and we did not drop off.”
When Fulton brought Jenkins and Cykowska back in at around the five minute mark of the fourth, the Panthers were clinging to a 29-27 lead. Jenkins in particular gave San Domenico some needed energy. Sophomore Lily Reeser, who played all 32 minutes and led the way with 12 points, got a steal and went coast-to-coast to make it 31-27. Then Jenkins got a steal and went all the way, plus she was fouled and made the free-throw to make it 34-27 with around 2:30 left.
Shalhevet (23-7) was the first orthodox Jewish school to ever appear in a state championship, and while the girls played hard the entire game, things unraveled for them early when their best player, sophomore Yalee Schwartz, went down with an ankle injury with 2:46 left in the first quarter. Plus, the cold shooting to start for Shalhevet continued for the entire game both from the field and the free-throw line. For the game they were 9-for-40 from the field, 3-for-20 on three-pointers and a measly 6-of-19 from the foul line.
For Fulton, it’s his third girls state championship victory in three tries but first in 14 years after he won back-to-back CIF Division V titles in 2007 and 2008 at Branson of Ross. His 2020 boys team at San Domenico won the CIF Northern Regional D5 championship but was denied an opportunity to win a state championship when the CIF canceled things at the last minute due to the pandemic.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend