By Ray Hamill — This year we’re seeing a changing of the guard in Big 5 girls basketball, with traditional powerhouses struggling and unlikely challengers emerging.
None more so than the Del Norte Warriors, who are on a roll and right in the mix for what would be a first-ever league crown for the program.
“We’re hungry,” said head coach Justin Clifton, who has his team off to a very impressive 12-1 start and the highest ranked of all nine local girls varsity prep programs.
They have reason to be hungry too, after a heartbreaking and somewhat controversial loss to Arcata a year ago in a game that ultimately played a major role in deciding the league title.
The Tigers would go on to clinch a sixth consecutive Big 5 after a 66-65 win that day, sealing the victory on three last-gasp free throws after a controversial call at half-court.
The Warriors have not forgotten, and it’s fueled them in the lead up to this week’s home showdown with the defending league champs.
“We’re extra motivated absolutely,” Clifton said.
A win over the Tigers would end another long barren streak for the Del Norte girls.
According to the coach, the Warriors have not beaten Arcata at home since 2001, and have not beaten them home or away since 2008.
This year’s Del Norte team, however, appears well capable of ending that run against a young and very new-look Arcata squad that is 7-9 on the season and 0-2 in league play.
The Warriors are riding high in the MaxPreps rankings, moving up this week to No. 3 in the Division-IV state rankings.
The Warriors are also ninth overall in the North Coast Section, and poised not just to end a long barren spell within the Big 5, but also perhaps for a major breakthrough in the Section.
It’s a sign of the growing culture of girls basketball in Crescent City, an area long known for dominating in volleyball and not in basketball.
Clifton, a 2002 Del Norte High graduate who played basketball for the Warriors, has seen the changing culture first hand within the community, with a growing number of AAU players and offseason programs.
And that’s beginning to pay dividends for the high school program.
Even more remarkably, this year’s success has been achieved with a squad that features only one starting senior and three starting sophomores.
That relative inexperience doesn’t show, however, and they have now won eight straight games as well tournament championships at Yreka and Hidden Valley this season.
Typical Del Norte defense
That success has been founded on one thing more than anything else.
“We play typical Del Norte defense,” Clifton said.
The head coach says it’s a philosophy he inherited from his days playing for the legendary Kirk Burrows back in the early 2000s on a team that won an NCS Division-III crown in 2002 and appeared in two championship games.
“He was a hard-nosed defensive coach, and I learned a lot from him,” Clifton said.
Current boys head coach Blaine Lopez was also a member of that coaching staff.
And both current varsity programs have inherited that mentality.
“As a group, they’re buying into that philosophy,” Clifton said. “That defense wins championships. It wins games, but it also wins championships.”
Warriors to honor Sanchez
Leading the way is senior co-captain Kaleya Sanchez, an outstanding all-around athlete who shines at several sports and who is also one of this week’s Humboldt Sports Athletes of the Week.
The Warriors will honor Sanchez before Wednesday night’s game for surpassing 1,000 career points, something she achieved last season.
The Del Norte senior is the third local girls player to be recognized for that feat this winter — along with Eureka’s Makaila Napoleon and St. Bernard’s Emily Gardner — but the only one to have achieved the mark before her senior campaign.
“She’s a phenomenal athlete,” Clifton said of the forward, who is also an outstanding volleyball player and a track and field standout.
A number of college basketball programs have already reached out to Sanchez about playing for them, but, according to her coach, she appears to have her heart set on playing volleyball at the next level.
Sanchez is the only senior starter on the Del Norte team, lining up alongside returning junior starter and co-captain Daniela Zepeda at small forward.
In the back court, sophomores Jadence Clifton and Bella Stone start, with another sophomore, Maykala Jackson, already making a big impact at center.
“We’re ready,” Justin Clifton said. “We’re ready this year. They want to win. They’re hungry.”
The Warriors can take a big step toward a Big 5 title this week against Arcata and McKinleyville.
After hosting the Tigers on Wednesday, the Warriors travel to play a resurgent Panthers team on Friday night in a pivotal Big 5 matchup.
“They’re a very good up and coming team,” said the Del Norte head coach, adding that his players are embracing the challenge. “They love to press, which is fine. We’ve got great guards.”