The End Game

M.Terry / SFVS

Joy In Their World —  Sierra Canyon players (l-r) Amanda Olinger, Vanessa De Jesus and Ashley Chevalier have had plenty to smile about this basketball season.

Since Alicia Komaki became the Sierra Canyon girls’ basketball coach in 2012, her teams have enjoyed a consistent level of success that includes two state championships (In Division V and Division IV) and a Southern Section championship in Division 5-AA.

So when asked about why the Trailblazers have been this good in the regular season — what is different about this group —  Komaki doesn’t dismiss the question with some flippant, off-the-cuff response.

“I’ve told this group of girls they are the most talented group I’ve ever had — which is saying something,” Komaki said.

“I also told them they were the softest group I’ve ever had. That’s not true anymore, and it might not have been fully true at the time. But we had to do something to get them fired up and motivated, to have an excuse for all the things I was going to put them through. We wanted to make sure they would be mentally tough through the year.”

The Trailblazers have certainly been that, and more. After beating Paraclete High on Tuesday, Jan. 29, Sierra Canyon has finished the regular season undefeated (26-0). Even more impressive, they’ve done it in Division I, the section’s toughest division.

And when the section Open Division playoff bracket is released on Sunday, Feb. 3, the Trailblazers could find themselves as a No. 1 seed.

So it is time to hail — or at least acknowledge — the other great basketball team here on campus.

The boys’ team (24-2 through Jan. 29) is the defending state Open Division champion and was last year’s section Open Division runner-up. It has a roster that includes a couple of seven-footers as well as the offspring of former NBA players Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin. It is a team that is considered beyond loaded, and is a serious contender to win every title available to it.

The girls’ team, on the surface, looks refreshingly ordinary — kids rather than physical hulks. But what these Trailblazers do very well is play very well together, offensively and defensively. They share the ball on offense and have players both capable of driving to the basket or shooting from beyond the three-point line. On defense they play an aggressive man-to-man, but are rarely caught out of position and don’t give opposing shooters many “clean” looks.

And Komaki perhaps didn’t have to worry too much about motivation this season. The players say they are driven by not having won a section or state title the last two seasons.

“I think the past two years we’ve had really good teams that were supposed to do really good things,” said guard Ashley Chevalier, 18, a junior. “But we haven’t been able to complete the season as well as we should have. We were a championship team the past two years that never got the ring and the title like we should.

“I think for most of the returners, it’s the fact that we’re sick of not fulfilling how good we are, and meeting those criteria. This year we’re definitely a championship team and we’re looking to finally get a ring.”

Adds forward Amanda Olinger, 17, one of two seniors on the roster and who is headed to the University of San Diego, “I feel this year Coach really came in with a championship mindset. Not that we don’t want to win every year. But this year, from the beginning, it was a focus of we want to win games, and we want to get a ring at the end of the year.”

Of course, now doing so means maintaining perfection at least through the Southern Section playoffs. And to have do it in the Open Division bracket.

But the quest is not simply about perfection for Sierra Canyon, but to  bring a consistent, quality effort to the court every game no matter the level or intensity of the competition.

“The perfect season is only fantastic if you finish with a perfect season,” Komaki said. “Our goal is always to put a banner up in the gym — a league championship, a CIF championship and, if possible, a state championship. Perfection is as good as you can get, but it’s nothing I’ve ever strived for.

“I’ve never been on a team or coached a team that went undefeated. So it’s never been something I’ve really thought about. You always want to get challenged and see how your team can fight through adversity.”

The team gets that, if for nothing else to keep from adding artificial pressure on itself.

“I think we’ve shown we can compete with anybody,” said guard Vanessa De Jesus, 17, a junior. “That when we play our best, we can win.”

For those still pondering the question of Sierra Canyon having faced adversity — Chaminade High was closest to the Trailblazers, falling by seven in a hard fought contest that De Jesus admits “I thought we could have lost” — consider this.

 From Jan. 18 to Jan. 26, the team played six games in eight days. The Chaminade game was played during that run, and the last two games were back-to-back, against Brentwood High of Los Angeles and Redondo Union of Redondo Beach which have also won at least 20 games. Sierra Canyon beat Brentwood at home, 77-44, and Redondo Union on the road, 61-39. And never looked tired or worn out in either performance.

Yes, perfection is a hard thing to maintain. The Trailblazers will have two more months to do so to claim both section and state titles.

And every game will be a test.

“If we keep playing the way we’re playing — we play as a team continuously and keep executing on defense the way we’ve been emphasizing all season — we can be [one of the best teams in the Open Division],” Olinger said.

That’s at least a perfect approach.

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