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Women’s basketball: SRJC on a quest for the crown

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Before this season began, Santa Rosa JC women’s basketball coach Lacey Campbell instructed her players to enumerate their goals for the

 Santa Rosa JC’s women practice for the state semifinal game with banners earned during past championship seasons hanging above them. (KENT PORTER/ PD)


Santa Rosa JC’s women practice for the state semifinal game with banners earned during past championship seasons hanging above them.
(KENT PORTER/ PD)

season. The coaches left the room, and the student-athletes wrote their wish list on a whiteboard.

The most audacious goal on the list: WIN A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP.

Now the Bear Cubs are two rungs shy of that achievement. They play Mount San Jacinto on Saturday night in a CCCAA state semifinal game at Cosumnes River College in south Sacramento.

Santa Rosa (27-6) is the No. 1 seed in the North. Mount San Jacinto (29-2) is the South’s No. 2 seed. The winner plays for the championship Sunday.

“I think we’re more impatient than anything,” Skyler Olsen said Thursday, sitting in the basketball office at SRJC’s Haehl Pavilion with two other sophomores. “Because every time I walk into the locker room and McKenzie’s there, I’m like, ‘I just want it to be the weekend already.”

“Whitney (Edens) has texted me and been like: ‘I can’t sleep. I’m too excited,’” McKenzie Mangino offered. “I’m like, it’s Monday.”

“I woke up every day this week thinking it’s game day,” Jade Hudson admitted.

“I wanted to pack, too,” Olsen added. “I got my suitcase out and I was like, ‘No, I don’t even have enough laundry to put in it.’”

Yes, the excitement is palpable at SRJC as the Bear Cubs chase their second state championship in three years. They will practice in Sacramento on Friday to kick off this important road trip.

The only players on the current team who remember storming to victory in Ventura two years ago are Hudson, who grayshirted last year with an injury after contributing to the title run, and Olsen, who shot video of the championship team as a grayshirt that year.

Neither of them can wait for another slice of Final Four atmosphere.

“The energy there, it was amazing,” Hudson said of Ventura. “There aren’t words to explain it. I told a couple of them in the beginning of the season, ‘I want you guys to be there.’ … Those were the best games I’ve ever had to play in, competition-wise.”

A state title is a rarity, but Bear Cubs coach Lacey Campbell has been telling her players that this team has a chance to be even better than the 2011 squad. Its curse is also its blessing — it’s a team without a superstar.

“We don’t have anybody that is 20 points a game, 15 points a game,” Campbell said. “It makes it fun, because they all can contribute.”

Campbell says that all 13 of her players could start for her. She plays 11 of them consistently, about as many as she can reasonably accommodate.

Against Cosumnes River in the first round of the NorCal playoffs, it was sophomore Anandi Jimenez who carried SRJC with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Against Modesto in a 58-56 squeaker on Feb. 14, it was sophomore Whitney Edens who led the team with 17 points, and sophomore Arianna Hanson who turned in the double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. On Feb. 5 it was freshman Madison Sowards who came off the bench to ignite Santa Rosa with 15 points against Sierra.

And that’s how it has been all season.

“You have that first five, and sometimes when you put that second five in, it’s not…,” Mangino said. “But this, it’s like watch out, because our second five’s gonna come even harder.”

Beyond the balanced attack, what makes this year’s team so fun to root for is its local composition. Of the 12 players on the active roster (Amber Hart is grayshirting), only Hudson played high school ball outside of the Redwood Empire. And that was at Fortuna, where she went head-to-head against some future teammates.

Sowards and freshman Taylor Graham played at Maria Carrillo, sophomore Holly Cramer and freshman Erin Skinner played at Rancho Cotate, Mangino played at Ursuline, Olsen at Kelseyville, Jimenez at Montgomery, Hanson at Rincon Valley Christian, Edens at Cloverdale, Stephanie Sack at Casa Grande and Emma Vierra at El Molino.

The familiarity breeds closeness — after the initial contempt fades. “The high school rivalries have been very strong,” Campbell said.

“It’s hard for them to get over that right away. But after a while they do. We lay it out there at times: ‘I know you didn’t like her in high school, but she’s your teammate now.’ It’s fun to see that the ones who absolutely detest each other in high school usually become best friends.”

For example…

“Stephanie Sack from Casa? In high school I hated her,” Mangino said with a laugh. “Like my team, we would say mean things about her, and I hated her. Now I’m on the same team as her and I love her. She’s one of my good friends now, and we play so well together.”

By now, after the ropes course and the bowling night, the weekly team dinners and the countless hours working together in the gym, this SRJC team is firmly glued together.

Really, at this point, the only challenge is keeping the players from going nuts as they wait for the Final Four.

“I don’t want to build it up too much,” Campbell said. “At the end of it, it’s still the same game that you played back in November. “It’s still the same length. Still 40 minutes. Still five-on-five; they don’t get any extra players.”

No, it just seems that way sometimes when the Bear Cubs start subbing in waves.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.