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Sage Hill girls’ basketball heads into state final carrying Mamba lessons, memories with them

The Sage Hill girls' basketball team.
The Sage Hill girls’ basketball team poses with the championship trophy after winning the CIF State Southern California Regional Division II final against Corona Santiago on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Behind every great team is a great story.

Teamwork and togetherness, facing adversity and coming out better on the other side are themes that reverberate around successful programs.

The Sage Hill School girls’ basketball team personifies all of them. The hurdles they had to take on came from on and off the court, none more significant than the harrowing events that saw friends, mentors, and to a large degree members of their extended family lost in an instant on a Sunday morning two years ago.

Forwards Emily Eadie and Annabelle Spotts, and guards Zoie Lamkin and Kat Righeimer — all sophomores — start for the Lightning now, but before they arrived at Sage Hill, they were learning to play the game at a high level in the Mamba Sports Academy.

Sage Hill's Kat Righeimer (11) hits a long two-point basket against Corona Santiago on Tuesday.
Sage Hill’s Kat Righeimer (11) hits a long two-point basket during the CIF State Southern California Regional Division II girls’ basketball final against Corona Santiago on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

On Jan. 26, 2020, they received the news — along with the world — that their lives would never be the same. A helicopter crash had killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.

Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and daughter Alyssa, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and pilot Ara Zobayan also died in the accident.

In Bryant, a global icon, a Los Angeles Lakers legend, and their coach had been lost; in Gianna, Alyssa and Payton, three teammates; and in Mauser, another coach in the academy.

Sage Hill clinched a playoff spot nine days later, but the moment that stood out most was when both the Lightning and visiting St. Margaret’s took shot-clock violations, setting the ball on the hardwood with 24 seconds on the clock to honor Bryant.

Sage Hill’s Isabel Gomez (24) puts the ball on the floor for a 24-second violation in honor of Kobe Bryant on Feb. 4, 2020.
Sage Hill’s Isabel Gomez (24) puts the ball on the floor for a 24-second violation in honor of Kobe Bryant during a San Joaquin League game on Feb. 4, 2020.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Eadie, Lamkin, Righeimer and Spotts came into the program the next year, and like everyone else, were subjected to the confusing and uncertain time dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since protocols allowed for a return to the court, their play continues to honor their late coaches and teammates.

Sage Hill has since won its first CIF Southern Section championship — over Ontario Christian in the Division 3AA final last season, and the team made a return trip to the section finals, dropping the Division 2AA title game to Orange Lutheran.

The story of resiliency continues, though, as Sage Hill takes on Fresno San Joaquin Memorial in the CIF State Division II championship game on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.

“This is something that we’ve envisioned since I came in my freshman year — along with Kat, Annabelle and [Eadie],” Lamkin said. “We all saw this coming along, and we all planned to get to this point. We planned to hopefully win CIF, both last year and this year.

“We didn’t win this year, but now we said after the CIF game we’re looking to work hard and win state, and that’s where we got to at this point, and hopefully we go into this game playing the way we should.”

Sage Hill's Zoie Lamkin, right, competes for possession of the ball against Orange Lutheran on Feb. 26.
Sage Hill’s Zoie Lamkin, right, competes for possession of the ball during the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA title match against Orange Lutheran on Feb. 26.
(Drew A. Kelley)

To reach this stage, the Lightning had to beat Nipomo, Long Beach Poly, Ontario Christian and Corona Santiago. The last three wins came on the road and were decided by a combined 10 points. Lamkin had a game-winning three-pointer on the last possession against Long Beach Poly, and Righeimer provided the last-second shot that took down top-seeded Santiago, 43-41, in the Southern California regional final.

“These kids, they fight like they’re supposed to,” Sage Hill coach Kerwin Walters told reporters after the regional final win. “It is built into them. They were built this way, and that’s the culture that we want to have from this point forward. We want to just build that way — a strong defensive team.

“We got girls who are versatile. They play inside, outside, they can do a lot of different things, and we’re a tough matchup for any team. We’re just going to get stronger, and we’re going to get better. This is just the beginning of them. It’s just going to get better.”

Their time together as a unit helps them to understand what to expect from each other on the floor, but attention to detail can be an ally in more ways than one — a lesson Lamkin took from Bryant.

Sage Hill's Annabelle Spotts smiles while entering the court before the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA final.
Sage Hill’s Annabelle Spotts smiles while entering the court before the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA final against Orange Lutheran on Feb. 26.
(Drew A. Kelley)

“Even at a young age, back in Mamba times, he used to instill in us to watch our film,” Lamkin said. “After our games, he would tell us that it would be up, and we could go watch it on our own time. Even today, our coach Kerwin Walters, he also keeps that instilled within us. Before games or sometimes even after a game, we’ll go back and watch film and see what we could have done better, or what to improve on when we play the next team.”

Senior point guard Isabel Gomez, a four-year starter, runs with the sophomore quartet in the starting lineup, setting the pace and leaning on the experience of leading Sage Hill through some very successful seasons. Gomez has always proven to be a sharpshooter behind the three-point line, but she has also been a willing passer her whole career.

Gomez said she learned about leadership from dynamic forward Emily Elliott, a recent graduate and another four-year starter for the Lightning.

“I think she would just be super proud of us,” Gomez said of Elliott following the regional final. “I know she would just wrap us all in a massive bear hug because she’s that much bigger than all of us. For me, she was the one that really kind of showed me how to be the person I am today. Her, Jacqueline McNeill, Zoe Mazakas and Nadia Akbari are the four people that really have taught me how to be myself and hopefully how to lead these girls in a way that’s positive.”

Sage Hill's Emily Eadie (1) drives between Corona Santiago's McKinley Willardson (55) and Tierra Taylor for a tough layup.
Sage Hill’s Emily Eadie (1) drives between McKinley Willardson (55) and Tierra Taylor for a tough layup during the CIF State Southern California Regional Division II girls’ basketball final against Corona Santiago on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Looking back on her time with the Mamba Sports Academy, Eadie indicates there isn’t a singular encounter or individual that sticks in her mind for motivation.

“To be honest, it’s all of them,” Eadie said. “They’re always with us at all times, and I feel like I always feel their presence pushing me forward to always do better.”

As insiders that were privy to Bryant’s Mamba Mentality, Eadie said it mostly had to do with work ethic.

Love has come from friends and family. Staying together has kept Sage Hill’s rising stars centered.

“It’s really good,” Eadie said. “It’s really nice that we all stay together. It’s always like a nice person to lean on if you need anything, so obviously we’re a really strong group.”

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