By Joe Davidson
This afternoon, the Sacramento Dragons coach couldn't find the precise words to describe the inspired efforts of her gritty, never-bland young team. So she said nothing. Finally, she spoke of pride.
Second-seeded Sacramento succumbed to the size and skill of top-seeded Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland in the second half and fell 57-46 in the Northern California Division III championship game at Power Balance Pavilion in a sobering end to what had been a refreshing upstart season.
That the Dragons of Oak Park were here was testament to the program Massari has maintained as she plugged in four new starters to replace graduated ones and steered them right back to the NorCal finals.
"I've never been more proud of a team," Massari said, trying to maintain composure. She added later, "this is crazy to think about. Unlike Del Oro, unlike St. Francis, unlike El Camino, this is a fresh group of starters we have this year. It's unique because we graduated 90-percent of our scoring, 90-percent of our rebounding and defense - and here we are.
"There's no other team that can do that, and I'm so proud of these girls."
Leading the way, as she has all season, was Fantasia Hilliard (above), the dynamic 5-foot-3 point guard who scored 15 points and yanked down five rebounds among a lineup of trees in her prep finale. Fittingly, the senior was presented with the CIF Pursuing Victory with Honor Sportsmanship Award, befitting of her leadership and class.
"She is amazing," Massari said of the Sacramento State-bound Hilliard. "You can't match her energy, her hustle, leadership. She's become our heart and soul, and I'll miss her."
Jasmine Ware, one of a host of impressive returning players for Sacramento, had 18 points and seven rebounds as the junior wing attacked from all angles. Also returning for Sacramento next season will be freshman post Ayanna Edwards, whose defensive presence and poise helped key Sacramento to a 20-15 halftime lead.
The 6-4 Edwards, whom Massari said could barely dribble the ball last summer, had four blocked shots and six rebounds. She had four points as her offensive game continues to develop, but she clearly held her own against the 3-headed inside forces of O'Dowd's K.C. Waters, Breanna Brown and Oderah Chidom.
Those three undercrlassmen, all 6-2 or taller, combined for 33 points and 29 rebounds. Add in point guard Ariell Bostick's second-half floor leadership and six assists and one can understand how complete of a unit O'Dowd is. O'Dowd (24-7) won its first NorCal title and seems primed for more title runs. So is Sacramento with the return and expected growth of Ware, Edwards, Najah Queenland, Allie Green, Jehiah Cook and Dalayna Tyler-Scott, among others.
"There's some unbelievable talent coming back, and we'll get better and we can get right back here," Massari said.
Edwards agreed, saying, "We can grow from this and improve."
Now, maybe, Massari can finally exhale for a season well done. She wasn't sure if she could capably replace the graduated stars, but did with the combined efforts Hilliard, fellow guard and co-team captain Breana Williams and reserve post Unique Mikel.
They helped direct the Dragons to an unbeaten run in the Metro League, a Sac-Joaquin Section championship, two NorCal playoff wins and a 28-6 showing. The one void for these Dragons on Saturday was any semblance of a student-body following.
With Sacramento in the midst of a two-week spring break, there was no campus momentum, no rallied or rooter buses. But Massari will remember the effort.
"The seniors, the whole team, they were unbelievable this year," Massari said, also heaping credit to her assistant coaches that include former Johnson High hoops leaders Damond Edwards and Lloyd Hillman and former Burbank great Alex Van Dyke.
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Photo by Bryan Patrickfirstname.lastname@example.org