C.K. McClatchy High School’s Lady Lions basketball team won the state championship on Friday, March 27 at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion after a strong battle against Junipero Serra of Gardena. The Lions are the first SCUSD state champions on record with the California Interscholastic Federation.
That monumental feat was one that has garnered community support, extending through out the Land Park neighborhood and beyond. A rally was held in front of McClatchy High School on Friday morning before the team boarded buses and headed for the East Bay. Local businesses, like Land Park Ski & Sports and Raley’s on Freeport Boulevard, used their signs out front to cheer lead the team. The ski shop displayed the message: “PLAY B BALL/LIKE A GIRL/CKM LADY LIONS/THAT IS”; and, beneath the glowing neon Raley’s sign were the words: “Go Lady Lions.” That community support before the win has continued after it with extensive media coverage, and as this article was being written, plans of a neighborhood parade were being scheduled for Friday, April 10 at 1 p.m. at CKM. Also as this article was going to press, the team was scheduled to be guests of the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, April 7. Go Lady Lions!
Without further ado, what follows is a recognition of the players and the coach, as well as coverage of the historic state championship.
Meet the Lady Lions basketball team
Seven members from the McClatchy state champion girls’ basketball team were recognized by the Sacramento Bee last week as All-City players. This must be some kind of record for the Sacramento area.
The McClatchy All-City players were led by junior Gigi Garcia, Player of the Year, senior Lauren Nubla who was chosen to the second team, and sophomore Jordan Cruz named as a third team honoree.
Senior Destiney Lee, injured most of the season, super-sub senior Alex Washington, who hit the final four points to cement the state title, and juniors Kelsey and Kristi Wong, members of the all-hustle team, were all chosen to the honorable mention team.
Nubla was chosen by all of her teammates as a “coach on the court” for her unselfish play and being the hardest worker on the team. She brought constant energy to the court and often guarded the other team’s best player. “She was a great communicator and always talked to her teammates with respect.”
Nubla: “I enjoyed playing the role as leader. I’ve never been the leading scorer on any of my teams, but I think I brought some intangibles as senior to help the younger players.” Lauren has two brothers and a sister and hopes to play basketball next year at Cal State Fullerton as a walk-on.
Sophomore Cruz was not afraid to shoot the ball from any place on the court at any time. On good nights, she was unstoppable. Jordan’s game consists of “shooting, scoring, boxing out, crashing the boards, and ball handling. She is a complete player and an incredible competitor.
She almost single handedly broke Oakridge’s back in the second half of the Northern California finals with her 3-point shots. She considered her best game to be against Davis in the playoffs. Jordan hopes to go on to play college basketball.
Lee had her best game of the year in the state finals scoring 12 key points after returning in March from a November foot injury. All of the team members said she is definitely the team clown and keeps everything light. Lee has a basketball scholarship to play at University of Nevada Las Vegas next year.
Washington, also a senior, was often the first person off the bench, a tenacious defender, and a person the team could count on for about six points a night. With many of the Lions being on the short side, she was counted on for rebounds and guarding taller opponents.
Now for the Wong twins, often the smallest players on the court against far taller opponents each night. They were tenacious, with their non-stop harassment of the other teams’ guards. Kelsey, the oldest, always guarded the point guard and wore each one down every night by the fourth quarter with help from sophomore backup Sara Shimizu.
Kelsey considers her best skills to be ball handling, passing, and pressure defense. She considers her best game was against Pleasant Grove, but against Oakridge, she put so much pressure on the guard, she would not dribble the ball up the court in the 4th quarter and passed off to other players who folded under McClatchy’s pressure.
Kelsey is proud of her 4.0 GPA and her favorite classes are AP biology and AP Calculus. Besides her twin, she has an older brother Kramer. She also plays volleyball.
According to coach Kunisaki, Kristi is an excellent outside shooter who does all of the little things for the team. She hustles after every loose ball and makes key steals because of the pressure from her sister. “Whenever we needed a key basket or defensive stop, she always stepped up.”
Kristi considers her best game was against Oakridge in the fourth quarter at Sleep train when she drove to the basket for a score and then later hit a 3-point shot. Kristi plays volleyball in the fall and is also an outstanding student. Both sisters say that McClatchy graduate John Warren is their favorite teacher. Both will be back next year to out-hustle everybody in the Metro League again.
Other members of the team included senior Haley Arakaki and sophomores Sara Shimizu and Ka’Maree Donald. Even though Arakaki was not a starter, she was an extremely hard worker, and she said, “These girls and the coaching staff have had such a positive impact on my life.”
Shimizu split time with the Wong sisters and defense was her specialty. “I understand that this is a team sport, and I try to look for open players when I am on the court. I don’t personally need to score to contribute.”
Coach Kunisaki commented that Shimizu’s speed and tenacity was a big spark off the bench. Jade Fenseca was brought up from the junior varsity team for the playoffs and was a big help on the scout team.
Donald, according to coach Kunisaki, was the best all-around athlete on the team. Her speed was her best asset and she could really drive to the basket. She has six brothers and sisters, and she should be a major contributor the next two years. She will run track in the spring.
Assistant coaches were Jeff Ota, a McClatchy Sports Hall of Fame member and men’s varsity coach, and Que K. Ngo, a former head coach, who came on board to help at mid-year. “Jeff and Que help our team tremendously, especially in practices. Their attention to detail and our different coaching styles allowed us to work as a very effective team.”
Gigi Garcia was named The Sacramento Bee’s 2014-15 Player of the Year after leading the McClatchy Lions to the state title last week. Gigi, a 6’3” forward, averaged 17.7 points per game, 11.3 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. She was also an excellent passer and considered by her peers a team leader “who always had their backs in a game.”
Gigi’s parents Aaron, a local football star in high school and college and record-setting passer in the Arena league and Shelby, a basketball star at El Camino and Sacramento State, played major roles in nurturing her drive and talents.
Her dad encouraged her to practice, run, and challenge herself. Before basketball she was an outstanding youth soccer player.
Practicing against her mother on the basketball court toughened her into becoming an immediate starter on the basketball court as a McClatchy freshman. Gigi joked that “Mom no longer challenges me to games in the park anymore.”
Gigi has a younger sister Isabella and brother Anthony. On the court she sees herself as the big sister to her smaller teammates. “I protect my teammates.” My strengths are rebounding and defense, but her shooting touch has improved each year.
Her best game of the year “was the state title game,” where she had 19 points, 20 rebounds, 6 blocks, and dribbled the ball up the court against the press. “Winning the title was emotional and amazing. I almost cried.”
Gigi returns to CKM next year and is being courted by many of the top college basketball teams to play for them after she graduates. Going to college and having a successful life are at the top of her list along with “possibly marrying Blake Griffin.”
GO LIONS. “I love my team.”
Meet the coach
Jessica Kunisaki, McClatchy state champion coach, was named the Sacramento Bee Coach of the Year. Jessica, a McClatchy star guard in the early 2000s, led the Lions to a 27-7 state title record in only her fourth year as head coach.
Jessica is truly an amazing coach. With tough love she pushes the girls in practice to challenge them to become their best. “We returned 10 players which made it easy to build on because we already had a foundation.”
As a game coach, she coaches with a quiet confidence and makes instant decisions, substituting freely, with a feel for game situations well beyond her 28 years.
One Sacramento basketball aficionado commented, “Watching Jessica coach is like watching an impresario conduct a concert. She is one the very best I have seen in the Sacramento area. She learned well from her mentor, Harvey Tahara.”
In watching the Lions the last two years, she just has “IT” when it comes to understanding the flow of the game. She is always in control of her emotions. She was assisted by veterans Jeff Ota and Que K Ngo.
The TV commentators for the state title game remarked numerous times about her ability to make key substitutions, and also how she rallied the team after the 3-point shot that tied the game at the buzzer.
“Having Gigi Garcia (Player of the Year) and Lauren Nubla (2nd team All-City) also didn’t hurt.” Sophomore Jordan Cruz was also named 3rd team All-City.
“Lauren is such a great leader for our team.” She was able to communicate with her teammates in a meaningful way. “She was a 4-year starter and always knew what I wanted from her and the team.”
Gigi is a leader by example. “Her competitiveness and determination allows the girls to feel at ease anytime they step on to the court.” Jordan had a huge game against Oakridge to win the Northern California championship.
Jessica’s parents Rodney and Julie, both McClatchy graduates, along with twin brother Joel and younger brother David, are a true Lion family.
“I loved growing up with brothers because we would always play together. Joel’s friends would never take it easy on me, so it forced me to toughen up.”
As a player Jessica always wanted to play at ARCO but in her junior and senior years, the Lions lost in the playoffs at UOP.
Rodney is known throughout the Asian community for helping to raise money to build the Asian Sports Foundation facility off Laguna Boulevard and helping Bob Sertich start Restore the Roar, the Lions booster club.
“I never imagined I would come back and coach at McClatchy after I left college.” A 3-year player at Chapman, where she broke the single game assist record her sophomore year, Jessica returned to Sacramento where she attended Sacramento State to get her counseling credential.
She was immediately asked to coach the Genevieve Didion middle school team and CKM athletic director Christine Latino asked her two months later to help varsity coach Harvey Tahara coach the junior varsity girls at McClatchy. She coached both at the same time.
I took over the varsity position when coach Tahara told me to, and I still did not feel I was ready.”
When asked about coach Kunisaki, ALL of the girls commented that she pours her heart and soul into making us better players. “She truly cares about us as individuals and as a team. She wants our team to succeed and she has total confidence in us that we will succeed.”
Revisiting the monumental game
The CK McClatchy Lions mighty girls basketball team fought off a slow start and two terrible calls by the officials in the last minute of regulation to beat Serra of Gardena in double overtime 65-61. McClatchy is the only school in the Sacramento City Unified School District to win a state title.
Two thousand and three hundred loyal noisy McClatchy fans showed up at UC Berkeley after a big send-off rally on the Freeport campus. Restore the Roar, the local booster club, gave each of the players state playoff tee shirts.
Jessica Kunisaki’s Lions, led by junior Gigi Garcia, seniors Destiney Lee and Lauren Nubla, fought back time and time again to defeat the top Southern California team.
Garcia, the six-foot-three-inch-junior, had 19 points, 20 rebounds, six blocks, many altered shots, excellent passes for easy shots, and often dribbled the ball up the court against the press.
Lee, who was injured much of the season, had her best game with 12 points while Nubla, the outstanding senior point guard, had another excellent floor game scoring 15 points.
The Wong twins, Kelsey and Kristi, again played tenacious defense against much taller opponents and hit key baskets to change the Serra defense. Jordan Cruz had an off night shooting, but again played outstanding defense and rebounded against bigger players. Senior Alex Washington made a key basket late in the second overtime and hit two free throws to clinch the game.
Kunisaki, a 2004 McClatchy graduate and all-league point guard under mentor Harvey Tahara, took over the job four years ago thanks to Tahara’s urging. She is presently a career center counselor at McClatchy.
Three years ago Garcia and the Wong twins showed up as freshmen and the building began. A year later Cruz, an outstanding shooter and all-around player, arrived on campus. All four will be back next year.
Kunisaki’s coaching was again outstanding as she substituted often and kept the team up after each setback. At 28, she is truly an outstanding coach. Her team is tenacious on defense, going for every loose ball and beating down bigger teams with hustle and fitness.
Boys basketball coach and assistant girls coach Jeff Ota said, “They’re the sweetest kids and then they get on the court and it’s Jekyll and Hyde.”
Against Oakridge in the Northern California finals, the Lions found themselves down early against a much taller team who kept getting every early rebound. By the fourth quarter the Lions had worn them down, creating 30 turnovers, and outscored Oakridge 16 to 7 to win by nine.
Against Serra, down 9-1 and 14-3, the Lions clawed back late in the first quarter to cut the lead to 14-12. The Lions were behind at the end of each quarter but jumped out to a 10-point lead with 1:11 to go.
A horrible call by the officials that allowed Serra to score a unique 5-point play, and an extremely quick 5-second-count on an out of bounds play cut the lead to three points. A last second “Hail Mary” 3-point shot by Serra tied the score at the end of regulation.
Not folding with disappointment, both Kunisaki and Garcia rallied the team not to let down or give up. Garcia was very adamant in the huddle about not giving up even though momentum had shifted in the game.
In the second overtime Garcia drove to the basket for a layup and passed to Lee for an easy basket. Washington finished out the night in the last 30 seconds with her only 4 points and the Lions were state champions.
Afterward CIF Executive Director Roger Blake approached Kunisaki and applauded the Lions’ efforts, moved that her players were quick to help Serra players off the floor as champions with character. The CIF also gave Cruz “Outstanding Sportsperson of the Game.”
The Lions (27-7) who finished the season bruised and battered with their hustle-style of play were red-faced from fatigue and emotion and many players and fans cried from the emotion.
Kudos to Athletic Director Rob Feikert who handled all of the playoff paper work, and organized a brunch at McClatchy’s cafeteria before the Nor. Cals. He also got district vans to drive the team during the playoffs. Hats off to Feikert, coach Kunisaki, and the Lion girls for a great winter season on Freeport Boulevard.