For Menlo-Atherton, getting to the Division I finale on Saturday night is a fitting finish to the Bears' goal of honoring one of their teammates, who lost her father last year.
For Castilleja, getting to the Division V final on Saturday morning is a chance to avenge last year's loss to Pinewood in the title game.
And for Pinewood, reaching the Division V final against Castilleja provides just another opportunity to show everyone why the Panthers have been ranked No. 1 in the state in their division and why they have a legitimate chance to return to the state finals.
All this comes together on Saturday at Santa Clara University, which is just a stopover before all three teams head into the CIF NorCal playoffs beginning Tuesday. The CCS champs will earn a first-round home game (and quite possibly host through the semifinals) while the losers will have to travel.
For Menlo-Atherton, everything is just extra at this point in the season. The Bears set a goal of reaching their division title game and they have. They accomplished that with a 54-51 overtime victory over No. 3-seeded Evergreen Valley on Wednesday night at Mission College in Santa Clara.
The Bears (15-15), who have beaten the No. 2 and 3 seeds back to back, will play No. 1 seed North Salinas (23-3) in Saturday's section title game at 6 p.m. North Salinas advanced with a 25-24 win over No. 5 San Benito. Menlo-Atherton last won a CCS title in 1993.
"We've been looking forward to this (title game) for a long time," said M-A senior Jessica Tuliau. "This is just amazing."
Tuliau was in tears as she spoke, for a number of reasons. She was both happy that her team achieved its goal with the victory, but sad that her father was not there to see it.
Jeremiah Tuliau passed away last year. He had been a big supporter of the M-A girls' team, always providing encouraging words after wins or losses.
"I always remember him sitting in the second or third row, wearing a blue jacket," said M-A coach Pam Wimberly. "He was very supportive of the girls, the program and Jessica."
Wimberly recalled how she first met the Jessica and her father.
"I remember Jessica and her dad were shooting around on our outdoor courts. She was in the fifth grade, I think, and she was shooting around with her two sisters. I remember him telling me that she'll be here in five years. Sure enough, she was."
Since the passing of her father, Jessica and her teammates banded together to honor him. The team dedicated this season to him while Jessica had her own personal tribute.
"Before each game," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, "I have this little prayer that I do. I dedicate every game to him. I know he was here today."
Tuliau's father would have been proud of his daughter, and the M-A team. The Bears overcame some horrendous shooting and ballhandling as the shorter, quicker Cougars forced M-A into numerous turnovers throughout the game.
The Bears, however, never gave in and never gave up. They battled through the tough times, just like they did this season when senior Victoria Fakalata was academically ineligible for the first 15 games of the season. When she became eligible in January, M-A lost starting point guard Melody Turner for the same reason.
The 5-foot-11 Fakalata played herself into shape and lit a spark that helped carry the Bears into the postseason, where she has scored 69 points in the four victories.
Fakalata contributed 18 points in Wednesday's victory. However, both she and sophomore Tennyson Jellins, fouled out in the fourth quarter. When Fakalata left with 3:08 to play in regulation, Wimberly still wasn't overly concerned because she had the 5-9 Jellins as a backup post. But when Jellins fouled out with 2:13 left, Evergreen Valley converted a free throw for a 42-41 lead and Wimberly was worried.
"When Victoria fouled out, it was like, OK, we've got Tennyson," Wimberly said. "When when we lost Tennyson, I'm thinking we're not going to be able to win this thing."
Sarah Mitchell and Sarah Watson both came off the bench to replace Fakalata and Jellins.
"We had two bench players on the floor at the same time and not a lot of scoring," Wimberly said.
The 5-11 Watson, however, held her own on defense while Mitchell mixed it up under the boards. Mitchell hit one of two free throws with 1:48 left in regulation and Watson made two with 1:26 left for a 44-43 lead. Evergreen's Rachel Orosa made one of two with 45 seconds left to tie the game at 44. M-A had the ball for the final 17 seconds, but couldn't game off a winning shot.
In the four-minute overtime, Mitchell hit four clutch free throws on consecutive trips down the floor for a 48-44 lead. The Cougars, however, tied it up with 1:49 to play. That's when Tuliau stepped up with perhaps the most important basket of her life, a clutch three-pointer with 31 seconds left for a 51-48 lead.
M-A's Sela Tupuo made one of two free throws with 20.2 seconds left, with the missed shot going out of bounds in the Bears' favor. Tuliau was fouled on the inbounds play, making one of two for a 53-48 lead. The Cougars rushed down court, with Jennifer Le firing in a three-pointer from well beyond NBA-range for a 53-51 game with 7.6 seconds to play.
Tuliau was immediately fouled and again made only one of two, keeping the door open for a possible game-tying trey. It never came and the Bears charged onto the court to celebrate.
Wimberley, who has been coaching the Bears since 1968 and won three straight CCS titles from 1991-93 (she also won in 1984), was exhausted and amazed once again.
"We knew Evergreen would swarm us on defense," she said. "But, we hit the free throws down the stretch and there was Jessica's big shot . . . wow."
Wow is right, and now the Bears have a shot at continuing their very special season.
"They believe," Wimberly said.
Girls' Division V
Castilleja advanced to the championship for the second straight year as junior Natasha von Kaeppler scored 27 points to spark the No. 3-seeded Gators to a 45-34 victory over No. 2-seeded Eastside Prep on Wednesday night at St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic in Watsonville.
Castilleja will face top-seeded Pinewood (22-6) in the CCS finals on Saturday morning at Santa Clara University at 10 a.m. Pinewood, which defeated host St. Francis-CCC, 51-27, will be playing for its 12th section crown while Castilleja will be seeking its first.
The Gators (20-8) never trailed against Eastside Prep as they kept a safe distance from the Panthers for the most part. Leading by a point after a quarter, Castilleja opened the second frame with 10 straight to push its lead to 11. Eastside fought back, answering with seven straight of its own to pull to within four, but Castilleja pulled ahead and led by seven at halftime.
In the second half, Castilleja continued its shutdown defense while von Kaeppler scored 10 of her game-high 27 points, a school record for CCS play. Eastside was only able to trim two points off of Castilleja's halftime advantage. In the fourth, the Gators slowly put the game out of reach. Castilleja scored the first eight points in the final frame, receiving timely baskets from Tayo Amos and Lauren Rantz as the Gators' lead grew to 13. Castilleja was able to bleed the clock over the final four minutes as Eastside failed to cut away at the deficit.
Eastside's leading scorer, Ahjalee Harvey was held to 17 points as Amos and Riya Modi did not allow the versatile junior to get into a rhythm. What really hurt the Panthers was not having senior Felicia Anderson in the lineup for the second straight game. With Anderson out for unspecified reasons, it was easier for the Gators to concentrate their efforts in slowing Harvey down. In two earlier victories over Castilleja, Harvey had scored a total of 56 points.
Castilleja senior Eve Zelinger was held without a field goal for the first time in her career, snapping a school-record streak of 109 games with at least one basket. The Panthers were determined to not let Zelinger take over the game as they played a box-and-one defense on the senior shooting guard. That, however, allowed von Kaeppler to dominate inside.
In the other Division V semifinal in Watsonville, Pinewood will have the opportunity to shoot for a 12th section championship following an impressive 51-27 victory over host St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic. The CCS finale on Saturday will be a rematch of last season's title game won by the Panthers, 43-41.
Pinewood blew the game open with a 25-3 run over the final 11 minutes of the first half, triggered by a 17-3 bulge in the second quarter. St. Francis-CCC was held to 1-of-12 shooting during that run as Pinewood's swarming defense forced 10 turnovers. Holding on to a 34-14 halftime lead, the game was effectively over at that point as Pinewood had too much depth, talent and quickness for the host Sharkes.
Pinewood junior Hailie Eackles led the way with 21 points while fellow junior Miranda Seto added nine.
Girls' Division IV
Fifth-seeded Sacred Heart Prep saw its postseason run end in a 64-28 loss to top-seeded Santa Cruz (23-5) in a section semifinal on Tuesday in Santa Cruz. The Gators (10-18) had trouble with the Cardinals' press in a game matching SHP's inexperienced freshmen and sophomores against a home team with the veteran experience of eight seniors. SHP freshman Helen Gannon led her team with 10 points and seven rebounds while fellow freshman Melissa Holland contributed seven rebounds.
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