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State title belongs to Oak Ridge

By: Matt Long
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Fueled with heart, driven by hope, achieved through hustle. Those words were the theme to Oak Ridge High’s varsity girls’ basketball season in their quest to achieve their goal of winning a state title. The 20 girls wearing Oak Ridge uniforms Saturday night are bound together forever having accomplished that goal they set out to achieve more than a year earlier. From Stanford-bound star senior and team leader Sara James to the six girls brought up from the junior varsity team at the start of the playoffs, this group put the time, effort and work in to achieve a goal and it paid off dearly with a 55-42 win over Long Beach Poly on Saturday at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. “It’s the best way to go out,” senior Kelsi Danciart said. “We got as far as we could and we won. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. We’re a big family and I’m going to stay in touch with these girls the rest of my life.” Fellow senior Megan Griswold was thrilled the team achieved their goal. “We made some big plans for our senior year,” she said. “I can’t believe it (we’re state champs). I’m in shock. I’m so happy. The whole team worked together and got it done.” Sara James has been saying to anyone who would listen that the team is far more than a one-person show. Coach Steve White has said more than once that his team is much more than James, the team’s star player headed to Stanford on an athletic scholarship. For the eighth time in the playoffs this season, the girls proved that Saturday night. While James led the way with 26 points, 20 coming in the first half, others stepped up. Everyone on the team knows their role and did their job effectively, which led to the victory. Caitlin Welsch, who has had an outstanding postseason performance, struggled offensively on Saturday, but helped the team in other ways by playing strong interior defense against a taller, more physical Poly team. Her back-up, junior Stefanie Walberg, was magnificent. Her final stat line shows two points, four rebounds and an assist, but in a game of this magnitude, everything is huge. “Stefanie played an awesome game and I’m so glad she was able to step up and play well tonight,” Welsch said. “She always battles me hard in practice and it paid off for her tonight.” Walberg, who played nearly 12 minutes, couldn’t wipe the smile off he face. “I’m not a player that gets a lot of playing time, but to get some rebounds and even score in a state championship game is huge,” Walberg said. “It gives me a lot of confidence and I’m already excited for next year.” Guard Carly Bettencourt added, “Walberg was beasting down low.” Junior Dakota McLarnan, like Welsch, has had an outstanding playoff run and finished it off with a marvelous performance again Poly, scoring 14 points and connecting on a Division I girls state championship record-tying four 3-pointers. “We had a deal that Dakota was going to hit six, but I guess a record-tying four will have to do,” White said with a laugh following the game. Oak Ridge’s guards, Carly Bettencourt and Natalie Stone, played a solid game. Stone scored seven points and Bettencourt, six, and equally important, both pulled down four rebounds. Griswold and Danciart are looked on to play defense and they did just that in the big win, just like they have all season. Even those players who didn’t get into the game, seniors Kristen Ramona, Lauren Adams, Kristie Kaiser and Jodie Richards, juniors Haley Padua-Dean and the injured Alexa Pickett and the girls up from the junior varsity team: Lindsay Honaker, Katie Hoisington, Jenna Klein, Kaitlyn Lendrum, Haley Anderson and Lauren Sende, they contributed as well with their undying spirit and support on the bench, and more importantly, for their effort and intensity during practice. “They’re the unsung heroes,” White said. “It’s a team effort from everyone involved.” Other quotes: “My hat’s off to Oak Ridge,” Poly coach Carl Buggs said. “They’re 2-2-1 press held us down. They did a great job and they’re a great team.” “During warm-ups, people were looking at us like, ‘this is the team that beat Berkeley.’ We used that to our advantage. We came out harder than them, kept our composure and shared the ball.” “I’m just happy that it went in,” McLarnan said of her 3-pointer that gave Oak Ridge a 45-40 lead with 3:36 to play. “I just keep shooting the threes and hope they go in.” “We’ve been playing a better version of the team we previously saw with each game,” White said. “I knew we were capable of winning, what I didn’t know was how they would respond to us. I wasn’t just blowing smoke when I said we could win. This group doesn’t get rattled too much. We maintained our composure and did an outstanding job.” “We talked in pregame that if the final score is 70-68 that’s not a game we can win,” White said. “I said we could win a 50-48 game and we did. Defense wins championships. That’s an old cliché but it’s something our staff believes in.” “Personally, I was nervous before the game, but Sara kept telling me to snap out of it and that helped,” Stone said. “Coach White is always telling us to respect everyone, but fear no one and that’s what we did. Late in the first quarter or early in the second was when I really felt we could do this.” “Before the game we were dancing to music, talking and eating. I thought we were pretty calm. If anyone was nervous, they did a good job hiding it,” Bettencourt said.