Column: High school state basketball championships signal return to normalcy

Jared McCain of Corona Centennial High hoists the state championship trophy with a net draped over it.
Corona Centennial’s Jared McCain leads his teammates in celebrating the CIF Open Division boys’ basketball championship on Saturday at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
(Nick Koza)

It was refreshing to see teenage boys and girls crying again at a sports competition because winning or losing meant so much. This weekend’s state high school basketball championships in Sacramento were the closest indication yet of a return to normalcy after two years of California hunkering down because of COVID-19.

Masks were off, handshakes and hugs were back. For all the ups and downs over the last school year, the debates and arguments, the threats and promises, it was good to finally get back to watching, listening and feeling the special vibes that come with competing at the highest level in high school sports.

Among the observations:

Coming down the hotel elevator, a student gushed about Golden 1 Center. “The stadium is insane. It’s so gorgeous.”

After his team lost in the Division V girls’ final, Shalhevet coach Ryan Coleman ended a news conference by offering a reminder. “This is something everyone is going to remember forever.”

Dejon Clark of Ontario Chaffey sat on the interview stand crying after a loss in the Division V boys’ final. Later when asked if he was in tears because of the defeat, he said, “It’s more about losing with my team.”


Moments after a dejected L.A. Windward girls’ team had lost in the Division I final, assistant coach Ebony Hoffman, who is headed back to the WNBA to be an assistant coach for the Seattle Storm, gathered the players on their chairs, kneeled and looked straight into their eyes and said, “We couldn’t be more happy to coach all of you.

Skye Belker, a junior guard for Windward who has committed to Princeton, commented, “I’m tremendously proud of this team.”

Corona Centennial guard Jared McCain, who grew up in Sacramento until he was 13, looked giddy on the interview podium. He kept saying what a “beautiful” city Sacramento was as coaches and teammates rolled their eyes wondering if he was trying to receive a key to the city.

Chatsworth Sierra Canyon sophomore guard Izela Arenas could have her own TV show based on how she can make a variety of faces reacting to whatever anyone says.

Title IX at 50 years old was celebrated throughout the state championships by having all six girls’ games officiated by all-women crews.

Lecturing a player without having them quit on you still happens. Santa Ana Foothill coach Yousof Etemadi called a timeout just before the third quarter ended specifically to offer compelling advice to junior Carlo Billings, who proceeded to play great in the fourth quarter. “He’s a good player and can take hard coaching,” Etemadi said.

Chaffey coach Erik Crull, commenting on reaching the state championships without relying on transfer players, said, “It’s a beautiful thing for a school and a community.”

La Verne Damien coach Mike LeDuc did his best trying to deflect attention after winning his first state title in 42 years. “It feels great,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about these guys.” Then the players asked him to smile and take photos with them.

Newport Beach Sage Hill girls’ coach Kerwin Walters offered the strongest endorsement yet about the importance of playing tough teams to prepare for a state title run, even though his team suffered a 56-point loss to Corona Centennial and a 35-point loss to Santa Ana Mater Dei. “We can’t play teams that can’t push us,” he said. “Those losses helped us grow. You have to play good teams in order to get to a stage like this.”

Clovis North coach Tony Amundsen, on his team traveling more than 1,800 miles during the playoffs, said, “My butt and my back hurt.”

There were eight young girls sitting in a row of seats at midcourt chanting the name of their favorite player, Juju Watkins of Sierra Canyon. She might have a future in the WNBA.

Attendance at the state championships for two days was `13,601. A good restart to a competition that hadn’t been held since 2019.

Venice coach Dave Galley was the only head coach who spent most of the game sitting in his chair. Was it discipline? Was it coolness under pressure? Was it confidence? Nah, he’s had multiple hip surgeries.