By John Parker
Special to The Bee
LODI - Their coach has been here before.
But for the student-athletes, the first part of that compound moniker carrying more weight than the second on their campus, of West Campus High School's girls basketball team and the institution itself this is a whole new feeling.
The high-achieving academic magnet school is in a Sac-Joaquin Section championship game for the first time in its relatively brief history after the Warriors finally downed mighty Colfax 50-47 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinal on Wednesday at Tokay High School. The Falcons had knocked West Campus (24-5) out of the playoffs in the second round each of the past two seasons.
"This is overwhelming," said West Campus junior post Haley Shaner. "This is what we've been working toward for three years."
Shaner and sophomore guard Eunique Williams each had a game-high 14 points.
Led by former Sacramento High coach John Langston, who led the Dragons to four straight section championship game appearances at what was then known as Arco Arena and won the 2007 D-III title, the Warriors showed championship resolve in the face of a Colfax program making its 31st straight postseason appearance.
With the score tied at 47 and eight seconds left, Colfax (18-9) got a stop and inbounded the ball under West Campus' basket. Warriors sophomore reserve guard Sokopeti Paongo pounced on the half-court length inbound pass and, as she was charging toward the goal, was fouled from behind with 5.7 seconds remaining. Paongo had missed three months with a high left ankle sprain and a chipped bone in the leg before returning two games before the playoffs started.
Thus, she said, she stepped to the line winded, heart racing.
"I was just thinking 'I need to calm down,'" Paongo said. "I needed those for my team."
She drilled the second of her double-bonus free throws to give the Warriors a 48-47 lead. Colfax was able to inbound the ball to Haleigh Biles who took two dribbles, crossed over and was fouled with 3.8 seconds remaining. But Biles, the Falcons' leading scorer with 11 points, missed both of her free throws as Colfax was also in the double bonus. In all Colfax missed seven free throws in the fourth quarter and hit just seven of 18 for the game. West Campus converted four of six free throws in the fourth quarter.
At their best the Falcons snatched defensive rebounds, brought the ball up quickly and made authoritative cuts and passes underneath. That put them up 46-38 with five minutes to go after having trailed early on. But too often early, and especially late, they were stagnant on the offensive end, dominated on the defensive glass and even chased loose balls timidly.
"These girls want to get to Power Balance (Pavilion, where the section finals are held) so badly," Colfax coach Dave Campbell said. "They were nervous, you could tell."
No such nerves were present on the Warriors bench or on the floor even after the Falcons stormed back. Winners of 19 straight entering Wednesday they notched their 20th in a row in a similar fashion to many of the preceding contests.
"We fight," Shaner said. "We've come back from much bigger deficits."
West Campus will meet Calaveras, winner of the second semifinal, on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. Langston walks into the arena under very different circumstances than those at Sac High when he had Division I collegiate protégés Jessika Bradley and Vicki Baugh in the middle of the 2000s.
"No one expects us to do anything," Langston said. "But these kids work more; we don't depend on one or two players because they're all capable of hitting the big shot."
* Calaveras 61, Bear River 46 - Top seeded Calaveras (27-3) weathered a second straight slow start, trailing 14-10 after one quarter, but eventually gained control and cruised to win in the other semifinal. Redskins' senior point guard Nikki Gleason led all players with 17 points and, when she wasn't pouring in shots, routinely broke down the Bruins' defense.
Bear River senior guard Jennifer Meylor had a team-high 15 points while junior guard Savannah Welz added 13.
Bear River (20-9) and Colfax will continue their seasons next week in the CIF NorCal Division IV playoffs.
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