Here’s the thing about playing for a state championship: To win, you’ve got to beat a team that’s on just as long and glorious a magic-carpet ride as you.
Yet it’s hard to imagine any team in all the Golden State on a more dizzying run than that of Modesto Christian’s girls basketball team, which will play Santa Barbara (30-5) for the CIF Division 3 crown today at 2 p.m. at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena.
From squandering a lead in the Sac-Joaquin Section title game against Florin (Sacramento), only to win on a pair of free throws from freshman Meagan Warwick with a second left on the clock, to trailing Enterprise (Redding) by 17 in the Northern California title game and scrambling for a mystifying comeback in the fourth quarter, these Crusaders have been on, well, a crusade.
One way or another that crusade comes to an end this afternoon against Santa Barbara, a team from a Spanish Mission town that’s been on, well, a mission.
“We’ve got a lot of great kids on this team,” said MC coach Robb Spencer, looking for his first state championship in 13 seasons leading the program. “They’re all buying in to what we’re selling.”
When you look at his career at MC, it’s an easy sell. Spencer is 344-91 (.791) with six section championships and three Northern California titles. That equates to an average record of 27-7, with a section banner just about every other year; and just about every class gets a chance to play for a state title.
That’s an incredible résumé by any measure, but when compared to what the boys program at MC has done – 28 wins a year with 16 section titles and two state crowns in the past 18 seasons – Spencer and the girls sometimes get lost in the lights.
“I think it would be amazing if (we) could win a state title,” said 5-9 freshman forward Jasmine Spencer, the coach’s daughter. “He works so hard and pours his heart into this team.
“I think (winning state) really drives him.”
Apparently, it also drives Andy Butcher, a 32-year walk-on coach at Santa Barbara High who captured his first section and NorCal titles this season.
“I’ve been the girls coach since I was good looking and could run and jump,” quipped the 55-year old Butcher, whose team beat Lakeside (Lake Elsinore) 67-43 on March 8 for the Southern Section crown. “Well, maybe not that good looking, but better looking.”
According to Butcher, the Dons and Crusaders are similar in style – both like to pressure the ball all the way up the floor and use and up-tempo style on offense – but he believes MC is “bigger, stronger and faster.”
“Our biggest starter is 5-9 … on a good day,” said Butcher. “And some of our girls are skinny little things. We’ve just, somehow, been doing really well toward the end of the year.
“We’re not better than the teams we’ve beaten, but we’ve been better on that one day. I wouldn’t want to play any of them again.”
The Dons are led by sophomore guard Amber Melgoza, a 5-9 power forward who owns a nice mid-range jumper and averages 22.1 points per game.
“When she’s on the floor, I’m a really good coach,” said Butcher, who pointed out that his star player was offered a full-ride Division 1 scholarship as a freshman. “I’ve coached 21 Division 1 players and she has the potential to be No. 22. She’s a talent.”
After scoring just nine in the postseason opener against Firebaugh (Lynwood), Melgoza has averaged nearly 30 points per game, including a 40-point effort against Irvine in the Southern Section quarterfinals, 38 against Lakeside in the section finale, and 34 last week in the SoCal final against Mount Miguel (Spring Valley).
“She reminds me of (Rachel Martin) from Enterprise and (Natalie Diaz) from Soquel,” Spencer said of Melgoza.
Martin, a 5-10 power forward who averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds this season, gave the Crusaders fits for much of their NorCal final on March 22. Diaz, a 5-11 power forward who averaged 14 points and seven boards, was briefly effective for Soquel during a 20-point loss at MC on March 15.
One thing to keep an eye on is how Melgoza and her Santa Barbara teammates handle shooting in the cavernous Sleep Train Arena. Until now, the Dons have only played in high school or small college gymnasiums, where the sightlines are similar to their home gym.
Also, Santa Barbara will have to travel six-plus hours from Southern California and spend Thursday night in a hotel. Modesto Christian, conversely, will spend all of 75 minutes on a bus, and play in an arena where they won a section title just three weeks earlier and are 6-3 overall since 2006.
“I’ve been pretty much a wreck all week,” said Butcher. “We’ve never been this far, and everything concerns me. They have a whole bunch of girls that can score. They have speed and size and strength. Their coach is a really good coach with a lot of success over the years. There’s nothing that doesn’t concern me.
“If we don’t play our best, this won’t turn out well.”