By Brandon HENSLEY
The Crusaders aren’t ready to call it a season.
After a comeback win on Saturday, and another great fourth quarter Tuesday night against Sierra Pacific, the Village Christian girls’ basketball team is on to the regional finals of the CIF state tournament for Division 4AA.
Tuesday’s 57-45 victory at Kendall Pavilion gave the Crusaders’ fans a chance to send their team off the right way, as this was the last home game of the season. Sierra Pacific came out matching Village’s intensity and took a 33-31 lead early in the third quarter. Both Leslie Aguilar and Maile Yamada found themselves in foul trouble – frequent whistles were a common theme, drawing the ire of both teams’ fans – but the Crusaders hunkered down and controlled the rest of the second half.
“We had to empty the tanks. It’s hard to pull it out of teams that don’t understand what emptying the tank means,” said Head Coach Jon Sampang.
These girls certainly know what that means now, after everything they’ve been through the last two years.
Having captured the CIF Division championship on March 3, the girls said they were ready for another run at state, and they’re backing up their words. Village lost in the state finals last year in Sacramento. One more win and they’ll be back for redemption.
The regional finals will be at Los Osos High School (Rancho Cucamonga) on Saturday at 6 p.m.
For the first 16 minutes Tuesday, the regional finals looked anything but a sure bet. Sampang said his team didn’t execute his game plan. Sierra Pacific has players who can shoot the three-ball, but Village (31-3 overall) over helped on defense, allowing those shooters to be wide open at times.
“I didn’t know if it was the energy in the gym, or a lack of focus, but that’s why [Sierra Pacific was] still in the game.” Sampang said.
Without Aguilar, the starting point guard who made the wheels go ‘round on offense for much of the second half, Sampang relied on several bench players to stay afloat. They did more than that, taking a 43-37 lead after three quarters.
Forward Micaela Cacho-Negrete had 21 points, and Aguilar had 14 points. But Sampang said the game ball should go to backup senior guard Peyton Ruiz, who has been a steady presence for the Crusaders all postseason.
“She’s taken on the role of coming on as a sixth player after being a starter for four years. This is nothing for her. Every playoff game she’s filled in perfectly,” he said.
Ruiz had five points in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win against Scripps Ranch, when Village turned an eight-point deficit into a three-point win.
“It’s her leadership, but she’s also humble,” Sampang said.
Freshman Alexis Mark was great on the defensive end against Sierra Pacific, blocking shots and grabbing key rebounds all fourth quarter long.
“That girl’s a competitor. She has the heart of a warrior,” Sampang said of Mark.
Both teams may have been tired after the game, but there were plenty of breaks to catch a breath, with the officials calling one too many fouls for both sides’ liking.
Sampang kept a cool head on the sidelines, though.
“You can get all the bad calls, you can still beat a team by 20 if you play the right way,” he said. “It’s all about maturity as a basketball player. You know how the refs are going to officiate, and you keep [fouling]. That’s your job to adjust to it.”
Village will have to adjust to a new setting on Saturday. After three home playoff games, this one will be on the road against the division’s top seed. But no one in the program will be complaining.
“We actually play better on the road sometimes,” Sampang said. “And the girls like going to Soup Plantation, and taking the charter bus.”