By Joe Davidson
Campbell (right) - the spirit of the Del Oro Golden Eagles - had fouled out of this bruising affair with St. Mary's and took the long walk to the bench. The backdrop was an appreciative, roaring rooting section, and seemingly most of the town of Loomis, all decked in black and gold colors. They applauded the senior and her team's effort.
So Campbell applauded right back - for the followers, her pals and herself for a season and career well done.
Earning the rematch it so badly wanted but not able to capitalize, No. 2-seeded Del Oro fell 56-48 to the top-seeded and nationally ranked No. 6 Rams of Stockton in the Northern California Division II finals at Power Balance Pavilion.
Pedigree wise, all factors pointed to St. Mary's as the Rams claimed their ninth NorCal title a year after finishing No. 1 in the country. Del Oro, as public school as public school can get, was in its first such title round since 1999. This season's outfit happened to be the best team in coach Mike Takayama's 26 seasons, and no one on his bench was intimidated by the Rams.
The Golden Eagles (27-5) came in as a close-knit, highly skilled bunch, and they departed closer than ever to take on the junior prom, heads held high.
"The toughest part," Campbell explained later, after scoring 18 points with nine rebounds, "was knowing that this was our last game for the seniors, knowing that the community and students were there to support us. We're the best of friends, and it's so hard to have it end. But it was an amazing experience."
Like they had in the first meeting between these clubs in the Sac-Joaquin Section D-II finals, the Golden Eagles led at the half. And like the last time, St. Mary's clamped down on defense in the second half and played with poise to salt it away.
Del Oro had 31 turnovers in the 70-65 setback to the Rams (28-2) at Power Balance and cut those miscues to 16 this time, but it was rebounding that really hurt the Golden Eagles. St. Mary's had 56, including a NorCal title game record 20 by Kendall Kenyon, whose team was paced by Ali Gibson's 15 points.
"They owned the glass," Takayama said. "They took over momentum in the third quarter and we had a hard time getting that back. We didn't have a lot of answers."
Takayama did have an answer when asked how special this group was. The core group is headed by Campbell, the senior class president, and fellow seniors Belle Obert, Becky Duncan, Taylor Donnot and Crystal Sewell, the heart of the club. Obert had 10 rebounds, and Sewell had 16 points and 10 rebounds and was awarded the Pursuing Victory with Honor Sportsmanship award.
St. Mary's coach Tom Gonsalves admitted that winning these titles never gets old. He called this one "as rewarding as any we've had" given the opponent.
Del Oro, as all great programs do, will make another run next season. Impressive sophomore Brianna Ruiz, she of the wide-open game and incredible upside, heads the returners. The departing seniors are all honors students and campus leaders.
"We've never had scholar-athletes with such enormous talent like this, and what a blessing to coach and work such great human beings," Takayama said. "I'll remember this team....forever."
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Photo by Bryan Patrickfirstname.lastname@example.org