By Brandon HENSLEY
Either way, the Crusaders will win.
That much is certain, as both the Village Christian High School and Valley Christian High School girls’ Crusaders basketball teams prepare to meet each other once again, this time for the top prize.
Familiarity may breed contempt, but bragging rights in this Olympic League rivalry isn’t all that’s on the line Friday night at Santa Ana’s Godinez High School. This game is for the CIF Division 4AA championship.
Game time is set for 8 p.m.
Both teams, who carry the same team name for their schools, are young and primed to dominate again next year, though if you ask Village coach Jon Sampang, he’d really like 2017 to finally be the year.
Sampang, a 2003 Crescenta Valley High grad, has led the Village program since 2009 and will be coaching in his second CIF championship game, the first since 2013. That loss to Sierra Canyon seems so long ago only because last season was the most memorable in the history of the girls’ program.
Village lost in the CIF semifinals, but qualified for the state tournament, and made it all the way to Sacramento in the state championship game. The girls ran out steam in the second half against Eastside College Prep.
A year later, Village, the little school hidden away in Sun Valley, is even better, boasting a 27-3 record, and a second consecutive Olympic League title. Even without starting center Mercy Odima, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in January, the top-seeded Crusaders seem poised to finally win CIF.
“Everything good takes time. The timing is always up to God, but sometimes people want the timing to be faster or slower,” Sampang said.
Village boasts two freshmen in Alexis Mark and Maile Yamada who have contributed mightily, but they can also rely on senior Peyton Ruiz and juniors Leslie Aguilar and Micaela-Cacho Negrete.
Sampang was originally confident his team could be successful without Odima, but he admitted this week he was surprised they’ve been this good since she went down.
“To be honest I am surprised because we’re young,” he said. “I thought we were going to slip up one or two times, maybe finish third in place, but it has to do with the girls buying in to the team sisterhood. Once they bought into that they played a little bit harder for each other.”
Valley coach Dominic Freeman said as much too.
“They’re still a well-coached team. They’ve gotten this far without [Odima]. It’s going to be a tough game for us,” he said.
Valley Christian, based in Cerritos, is 21-8 and led by senior guard Cheyenne McKinnie. The team goes as she goes, said Freeman.
Both teams won a game on each other’s court in the regular season. When Valley won, McKinnie and Ariel Gordon (17 points) played well. In the loss to Village – which was without Odima – the offense was non-existent. Gordon had just one point, and no one could hit the outside shot.
“They did a great job with their match-up zone,” Freeman said of Village. “They did a great job on the offensive side. They pushed the ball in transition.”
Without Odima, Village does play a faster pace. Cacho-Negrete is not afraid to take crunch time three-pointers, and Aguilar consistently drives the lane, trying to make something happen. Aguilar, who came as a freshman transfer from Ribet Academy two years ago, is relishing this opportunity.
“I know I like being in intense games,” she said. “I love the energy, the atmosphere, the crowd … having these types of rivalry games – it pumps me up, and I know it pumps up my teammates, too. It might be a little scary at first but I love the big stage.”
Village has failed on the big stage before. Then again, Sampang called last week’s semifinal game at Pasadena High one of the most intense environments he has ever been a part of. Village controlled the second half and beat Pasadena by double digits.
To beat Valley, he said his girls will have to play well against its trapping zone defense. There’s no mystery here for either side. Whoever executes better will win the title.
Valley stuttered late in the season. It lost three of four games in league after a hot start. Freeman said his girls became more upset after each loss, and that’s fueled them to get this far in the postseason.
“We have a lot to prove out here. To beat a team like Village, that’d be icing on the cake,” he said.
Village is also seeking validation. The program has achieved great heights since Sampang took over, but there’s still something missing. Win or lose on Friday, the girls will compete once again in the state tournament soon after, but to raise a CIF banner next season inside Kendall Pavilion would be special. Aguilar said those tough losses last year have helped this time around.
“Now we have experience. We played in the big stage. We know what to expect going into games,” she said. “This championship game is huge for us, but we’re prepared.”
Imagery is a great way to make a point, especially if you’re a coach. Sampang knows this, and used it well to describe his team’s state of mind.
“We’ve been through the fire. Now let’s douse it out and get a ring on our finger,” he said.