By Brandon HENSLEY
Update: Mercy Odima has a hairline fracture on her left leg and will be out three to five weeks.
On Monday, the Village Christian girls’ basketball team trailed a powerful Oaks Christian squad by 14 points. Three days earlier, the team lost on a last-second three-pointer to Olympic League rival Valley Christian. You could have looked at the overall record of the Crusaders and shrugged. They were about to lose their second game in a row, but it happens. A loss to Oaks Christian would merely drop them to 16-4.
Only Head Coach Jon Sampang didn’t want to hear any of it.
“I didn’t really see a team with heart and character yet,” he said of his girls. “I didn’t think we were tested yet.”
Sampang got his wish. Oaks Christian Lions are in CIF Division I. The Lady Crusaders are in Division 4AA. If there was any time to prove to the basketball world his team could respond to adversity, this was it.
The second half started, and the Crusaders dominated. They swarmed Oaks Christian’s Sydney Boyer, who is off to play for Princeton next fall. Guard Leslie Aguilar spun her way inside for buckets. Forward Micaela Cacho-Negrete hit big three-pointers, sparking a loud home crowd. The defense was intense, and after the final buzzer sounded it was Village 52, Lions 47.
This was the game Sampang was looking for. Last year, his team made it to the Division 5AA semifinals, and then in the state tournament it played for the championship in Sacramento. Early on this season, the Crusaders were looking as dominant as ever.
But Sampang had a question.
“We have a lot of talent, but what’s our DNA? We went on a 16-0 run,” he said of the girls’ performance on Monday. “We locked up on defense and played the right way. That’s our DNA.”
Aguilar, a junior, had 14 points. Senior center Mercy Odima had 12 points and 10 rebounds, and freshman guard Alexis Mark collected 11 points and 15 rebounds.
“That was my championship game right there. Win or lose, the rest of the season, I know that group knows how to fight for something they believe in,” Sampang said.
One caveat to the win involved Odima. The second-year transfer from Kenya, who is averaging 12 points and 11 rebounds a game, went down with a minute left in regulation after a basket by Mark. She stayed on the floor for several minutes as staff worked on her left ankle before being helped to the bench. After the game, in the locker room, she sat down with her ankle wrapped several times over.
“She’ll bounce back from this injury, whether it’s big or small,” Sampang said.
They probably won’t have her for Friday’s game at Heritage High School, when league play picks back up. But Sampang said Odima, who scored 24 points in last week’s loss to Valley, doesn’t have to be the go-to player every night.
Aguilar (11 points per game) and Cacho-Negrete (11 points and five rebounds per game) are veteran leaders, and the freshmen Mark (seven rebounds a game) and Maile Yamada (four assists a game) have impressed the coaching staff enough to play them big minutes. Team leader Avery O’Neal graduated in 2016, but Sampang likes his group going forward.
“We lost one senior, but we gained two freshmen,” he said. “They walked into their roles perfectly. The main thing is our core – Micaela, Mercy and Leslie – welcomed them. Those players had to give up shots for the new ones coming in because they’re just as talented. They had to put their egos aside and they’ve done that.”
Now that the Crusaders are 17-3, Sampang still won’t concentrate on their record. He and his team focus on the next game. It’s a mindset that’s worked well since he took over the program in 2009. Village made the CIF finals in 2013 and, in addition to the championship run last year, it also won a league title for the first time since 2000 (when VC played in the Omega League).
Success from a previous season doesn’t always carry over into the next year, but it’s working this time around, so far. The key, Sampang said, is to share the ball and let everyone have a chance to shine. If Odima is not available, it’s time for others to step up.
“We play hero ball, we’re 0-3. When we play the right way we’re 17-0,” Sampang said.