SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Based on some of the preseason chatter on social media by girls basketball analysts and fans, winning a CIF Open Division state championship seemed inevitable for Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth when junior superstar Judea “Juju” Watkins transferred there for 2021-2022 school year.
With Watkins joining sophomore standouts MacKenly Randolph and Izela Arenas, the Trailblazers were simultaneously anointed by some as the leading contenders for the this season’s Open Division title.
Head coach Alicia Komaki and her girls started the season 14-0 but then they suffered a heartbreaking 73-71 to La Jolla Country Day after leading by three late. They won another 12-straight games before suffering a 69-57 in the CIF Southern Section Open Division title game to Etiwanda.
Now, within the span of just less than two weeks, Sierra Canyon (30-2) not only avenged the two losses with 63-62 and 60-51 victories over Country Day and Etiwanda, respectively, they captured the Southern Regional Open Division championship with the win over Etiwanda.
Then, on Saturday evening at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, 13 days after the 12-point loss to Etiwanda, it all culminated as Sierra Canyon (30-2) fulfilled its destiny and at the same time left no doubt as to the top girls team in California with an 85-61 dismantling of Archbishop Mitty-San Jose.
“We knew our destiny after the CIF (Southern Section) championship,” Komaki said. “We knew we were going to be on the road. We knew we were going to face a tough La Jolla Country Day team, and go to Etiwanda again, and hopefully travel up to Sacramento. We knew our fate and we’re just so proud of how we bounced back.”
Against Mitty the ball was certainly bouncing the Trailblazers way.
Watkins set the tone with the first of two three-pointers from a foot beyond the NBA three-point line that gave Sierra Canyon a 5-2 lead. There were two ties in the first quarter and Mitty took its only lead at 7-6, but from there the Trailblazers had an 11-0 run and outscored the Monarchs 15-7 to take a 21-14 lead after one quarter.
When Watkins connected a second time for an NBA-plus three-pointer to open the second quarter, Sierra Canyon was off to the races. By halftime they used a 10-0 run to open a 41-27 lead.
The Trailblazers were 5-for-11 on threes in the first half and it got better in the final two periods. They finished 10-for-20 from outside the arc and 30-for-61 for an outstanding 49.2-percent from the field. They were also 15-of-19 from the free-throw line and 78.p-percent from the charity stripe is pretty decent for girls basketball.
After nailing two three pointers in the first half, Trailblazers sophomore Christy Reynoso drained back-to-back treys near the end of the third quarter to open a 20-point lead that ended up 62-45 to enter the fourth after Mitty senior Seattle University-bound Makayla Moore hit a three-pointer at the end of the third.
Reynoso finished making all four three-pointers she attempted and all five of her shots to finish as one five Trailblazers girls in double-figure scoring with 14 points, but while hers and the other Sierra Canyon girls were impressive in a total team effort, the biggest attraction was still Watkins.
The 6-foot-2 Watkins, who has the moves of a gazelle and can accelerate like a tiger chasing its prey, had another monster double-double 23 points and 19 rebounds with six assists, six blocked shots and three steals.
One of the other three girls to hit double figures was Randolph who had a double 13 points and 10 rebounds. Arenas hit two treys and finished with 12 points and freshman Leia Edwards had the exact same line.
“We’re all very well aware of how talented Juju is but we’re a really talented team,” Komaki remarked. “Before she jumped in here and joined us we were young and we were hungry, and we were ready to get to this level. She accelerated it a thousand percent.”
“I had this goal a long time ago, just being young and having a dream to come up here and play for a state championship,” Watkins remarked. “To see it happen is a dream come true.”
“As a team we worked extra hard all the way from November to here,” Watkins continued. “A lot of nights and hours and hours in the gym got us ready to come up here and just play.”
And play they did. In this game the lead accelerated as well and got to 24 points on four occasions in the fourth quarter, including the final score when junior Natasha Bay sank two free-throws for the game’s final tallies.
Mitty (30-2) got 14 points and nine rebounds from Seattle University-bound senior Makayla Moore, who has been doing that off the bench all season. Blossoming sophomore Morgan Cheli had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Texas-San Antonio-signed senior Siena Guttadauro added 10 points and three assists.
Mitty head coach Sue Phillips tried to be upbeat in the press conference.
“We’re incredibly disappointed with the outcome but we’re extremely grateful to be here,” Phillips said. “Sierra Canyon was fantastic and we weren’t quite up to the challenge tonight but we should applaud these young women behind me with 30 wins.”
“There’s something to be said about this group behind me, Phillips continued. “We may not have showed the full body of work by tonight’s outcome but I hope people would look across our full season and recognize what a fantastic year these ladies have had.”
With the CIF not holding state championships in 2021 and cancelling them at the last moment in 2020, Sierra Canyon has technically won back-to-back CIF state Open Division championships after beating Pinewood (Los Altos Hills) in the 2019 Open title game.
For Komaki personally, she has now won five CIF state championships in five appearances in 10 years at the Sierra Canyon helm. The first three were consecutive. In 2013 it was in Division V and in 2014 and 2015 it was in Division IV. Only five coaches have won more than five state championships but none got their first five in their first 10 years.
“It’s about the girls and the team, and I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for them, and if it wasn’t for Sierra Canyon and for Rock (Sierra Canyon AD Rock Pillsbury) for hiring me 10 years ago,” Komaki said. “He took a chance on a kid who was never a head coach.”
“Just the belief that the program had in me, that the administration had in me, that the parents have in me 10 years later that they still do, but we get these kids to buy in,” Komaki continued. “They believe in me and I think that’s the biggest thing. You don’t want your coach just to believe in your players, you need your players to believe your coach. Whatever it is I’m doing its working and we’ll just keep trying to do it that way for a little bit longer.”
The little bit longer will begin in the fall when Komaki returns Watkins, Randolph, Arenas, and all but one senior on a team that will likely be No. 1 in the preseason rankings.