It's been a good while since I've covered a basketball game at Florin High School, and I found that the gym still sparkles even if there was a dust-up after this contest tonight that may sully what could be a very good rivalry between superbly skilled and well coached girls teams.
The top-ranked Sacramento Dragons bolted to leads of 20-0, 29-3 and 34-5 and prevailed over the No. 4 Panthers 65-31 in a Metro Conference opener expect to be a fight to the finish.
As it turned out, there was almost a fight after the finish, and don't let anyone tell you that things get heated only in boys prep events.
After an otherwise clean, if at times physical and emotionally charged game, coaches from both sides got into a verbal exchange when the teams were shaking hands. The root of the problem, Sacramento coach Michele Massari said, was her team's contention that a Florin player slapped away the hand of a Dragons player, and then was cursed.
Both head coaches pleaded with the other to maintain order, and for a second, that seemed to ignite matters even more.
If not for cooler heads, Florin security and a Sheriff's office bearing a "I'm in no mood for this nonsense" expression, it could have gotten really ugly. Parents, relatives young and old, scorekeepers and Florin staffers all intervened to prevent madness, and kudos to that.
Florin coach Larry Price didn't want to comment, he was so distraught from his team's effort and disgusted with the post-game scene. He said he needs time to process what happened. Here's a suggestion: someone insist the head coaches meet to sort this mess out, to prevent it from happening again. The game featued some of the region's top talents, and Florin players so appreciate the Sacramento legacy that the Panthers have twice attended Dragons games for an up-close view.
In talking to Price before the game, the coach raved about his young team's superb academic standing, game resolve, talent and upside. Florin got off to an 11-0 season start, a far cry from the 0-24 mess just four seasons ago.
Massari also preaches big-picture with her team: being students, leaders, examples of excellence. So it came as no surprise that when star Dragons guard Jasmine Ware crumpled to the floor, clutching her knee, after a layup made it 34-5 with 5:30 to play in the third, she gasped and then sprinted to the baseline to tend to her senior leader.
Ware had to be carried off the floor by Dragons strength and conditioning coach Alex Van Dyke, who iced her knee and initially was led to believe the senior headed to UC Santa Barbara will be ok. He reported that she was able to move her knee, but was quick to remind ligaments are not always predictable.
Van Dyke also carried Ware - piggy-back style - to the team bus. I did catch Van Dyke taking a moment to collect himself half way to the bus, as if this superbly conditioned ex-NFL player out of Burbank was...out of breath.
"She's heavy!" Van Dyke cracked about the slender Ware.
Here's hoping Ware is indeed ok. She epitomizes the class athlete: kind and considerate away from the arena, a ferocious competitor with dazzling skills in play. Ware sobbed as she embraced family members and teammates during the second half of the game, her knee encased in ice behind the team bench. She fears the worst, saying later, "I hope my knee will be ok, but you never know."
The Dragons speak from experience. The team's other top talent, Allie Green, was lost for the season when she blew out her knee in summer-league play. Ware will visit a doctor Wednesday.
* Florin flashback thoughts - Ran into two of my favorites in the prep sporting world in Tim Riley and George Smith at the Florin game, both working the front door.
Riley coached Florin baseball to championship success in the 1990s as a fiery ball of intensity and pride. There wasn't anything quite as dramatic - and sometimes comical - as a Riley stare down with a heckling Elk Grove fan during a spirited Florin-Thundering Herd showdown, right through the back-stop fence. Out of coaching now, Riley, fit and stout, would be a great hire as a weekend bouncer.
Smith coached Christian Brothers to football playoff success in the 1990s, his greatest player being quarterback ace Kevin McKechnie, and he had two stints as the Florin football boss. Now the Florin athletic director, Smith is the picture of composure (even during the dust-up after the basketball game, the one calm figure was Smith).
Smith is in the process of sorting through candidates to take over the Florin football post, and he grinned in talking about how the love of his life enjoys sporting events as much as he did.
* Two other coaches of note from Florin that come to mind: Jim Smrekar and Shannon Gasper.
Smrekar was the Florin AD when the campus opened in 1989 (just the third school in the district at that time, joining Elk Grove and Valley) after leading Valley to boys basketball league titles in the 1980s. I remember back in '89, remarking how pristine the Florin blacktop hoops were - "Look, not a single bent rim!"
Smrekar guided several Florin boys basketball teams to the playoffs, and a signature moment was a buzzer-beating playoff win over Jesuit when the Marauders had ruled the region. Smrekar is now the director of athletics for the Elk Grove Unified School District.
* Gasper coached Florin girls hoops to back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title-game appearances in the mid 1990s, always immaculately dressed, always poised and always receiving maximum effort. She is now a teacher at Pleasant Grove, telling me recently she misses coaching games, but like all retired coaches, doesn't miss the fundraising, the grade checks and the periodic parent who doesn't quite understand her job.
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