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Sonora looks to finish year-long journey on top
It’s the first of March, and Sonora’s gymnasium is still in use.
As the school bell rings and kids filter through the parking lot, from just outside the gym doors, basketballs and sneakers can be heard bouncing, squeaking.
Usually a hardwood haven this time of year for Mike Murphy and the school’s boys hoops team, different tenants occupy the gym this season.
For the first time in Sonora history, its girls basketball team is in a CIF-SS championship game.
This week, the gym is theirs.
“Our girls are good friends with a lot of the boys from last year’s team,” Raiders coach Melissa Barajas said. “They watched their journey last season, and got inspired. Being a part of the boys’ journey, seeing their success, I think that gave them extra motivation to do something big like that this year.
“Now they’re seeing the same fruits of labor.”
Murphy last year coached Sonora to its first boys basketball CIF-SS championship in more than three decades.
On Saturday, Barajas and her Raiders play Orange Lutheran at 9:30 a.m. at Azusa Pacific University for the Division 3AA title.
“We’re not changing anything,” Barajas said Tuesday. “We better defend, better get after it on defense. We win with our defense. We want to keep it real simple, try not to complicate things.
“I just want these girls to seize the day.”
• • •
Sonora’s 2014 season ended sourly.
With two seniors on a team laden with underclassmen, the Raiders finished the regular season ahead of only winless Buena Park in the Freeway League standings. Fifteen losses in 26 games, Barajas hadn’t been part of that much disappointment since taking over at Sonora.
No matter their record, the Raiders received a playoff berth, and later traveled to Riverside’s Patriot High for a first-round Division 2A game against the third-seeded River Valley League titlists.
Sonora lost, 52-39.
Barajas gathered her team that night, and after congratulating the seniors on brilliant careers, laid before the underclassmen her blueprint for success.
“If you want to become better,” she remembers telling her girls, “there are no shortcuts.”
Dunn, Rodriguez, Meghann Henderson and other returning letter winners used the summer to burnish their game.
Some girls joined club; others spent the offseason shooting in empty gyms. Never mind what each girl did, Barajas said, the commitment was all she wanted to see. The coach figured her girls sacrificed hours and hours of leisure time that summer to work in seclusion.
“They started maximizing their potential,” Barajas said.
Sonora, as a result, ascended to second place in league last season, and then reached the Division 3AA quarterfinals.
Dunn led the team in scoring, but Henderson kept its heart beating. Both girls received first-team All-Freeway League laurels, and for averaging just less than 13 points per game in the playoffs, Henderson was named All-CIF.
“Last summer,” Henderson, now a junior, said, “I got in the gym and started practicing more seriously. I’d ask the coaches if they could open the gym for me, even if only for an hour. I got hundreds of shots up, and Marissa sometimes got out there with me.
“It’s the little stuff you do that makes a big difference.”
• • •
Sonora graduated two seniors from last year’s team, and returned Dunn, Henderson and Rodriguez.
Perhaps more so than any of their predecessors, the 2016 Raiders won games defensively. Sonora began the season with 11 consecutive wins – a streak during which it held opponents to an average of 32 points per game.
Of those 11 teams, nine made the playoffs, two made their division’s semifinals, and one – La Cañada – will play for a CIF championship.
“Our defense gets us started,” said Rodriguez, who Barajas said impacts the game subtly. “We see that turnovers lead to points, and when other teams are giving us the ball, we play even harder. ...
“I know I won’t score a lot, but my heart is in hustling, in setting screens, in setting things up so my teammates can score.”
Though Sonora lost twice to Troy this season, Barajas believes playing a team talented at every position kept her girls pushing.
Barajas said her underclassmen “embraced those moments,” realized their potential and no longer were they afraid of playing elite high school talent.
An outstanding shooter, Dunn again led Sonora in scoring, with sophomore Lainie James blossoming into a viable secondary option. And though Henderson averaged fewer points as a junior than as a sophomore, Barajas said many of her girls believed she was the best player on the court every game this season.
Sonora this winter finished runner-up to Troy in the Freeway League, but later received the No.3 seed in Division 3AA.
The Raiders defeated Gahr in the first round, then Indio and South Hills to set up the long-awaited rematch with then-undefeated, second-seeded Patriot.
Sonora forced 27 turnovers in last week’s semifinal, and beat the Warriors, 59-34. Henderson hit four 3-pointers and led her teammates with 14 points.
“We came back to play Patriot, and cried tears of joy in the locker room this time,” Dunn said. “I’d never been so proud of a group of girls before.”
Win or lose Saturday, Sonora will likely receive a CIF State tournament berth Sunday – extending its season by at least another week.
But Dunn, Rodriguez and two others will graduate in the spring, leaving Henderson and James to chase similar success next season with a new team.
But with school history on the horizon, why ponder the future?
“When we get to the gym Saturday, I think that’s when this will all sink in,” Henderson said. “We’ve been relaxed, taking it one round at a time. But the playoffs have gone by really fast.
“I’m doing this for (the seniors),” Henderson continued. “I have another year of high school, but I wouldn’t want to do this, I wouldn’t want to enjoy CIF, with anyone but them.”
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