Japanese American coach leads Sacramento’s McClatchy High to city’s first state title

McClatchy High State Champs

The victorious McClatchy Lady Lions following their victory in the state championships. photo courtesy of Jessica Kunisaki

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It took 160 years, but on March 27 a girls’ varsity basketball team from Sacramento made history as the first sports team from the Sacramento City Unified School District to win a state championship.

And they did it in dramatic fashion.

The C. K. McClatchy High School Lady Lions beat the Junipero Serra High School Lady Cavaliers from Gardena, Calif. 65-61 in a double-overtime match for the California Division I championship. Lady Lions Head Coach Jessica Kunisaki said winning the championship game has been an “unreal” experience.
“We’ve always dreamt about this and for it to be a reality is … just a weird feeling,” said Kunisaki, a 2004 McClatchy High School graduate.

After trailing the entire game, the Lady Lions fought hard to gain a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter with 1 minute, 10 seconds remaining. However, after a series of quick plays, the Lady Cavaliers caught up and Lady Cavalier junior point guard Briana Johnson made what Kunisaki called an “NBA-range three (pointer)” to bring the game into its first overtime with just seconds left.
“We wouldn’t want anything else for our last game than to get to play extra minutes,” Kunisaki told her team after going into overtime. “I mean, that’s the best thing you can ask for, is that you get more time to complete our dream.”

And the Lady Lions made every minute count, sealing the win after junior small forward Gigi Garcia scored four points within the last minute of play in the second overtime. Senior shooting guard Alex Washington made two free throws with just seconds left.

“They kept fighting, kept digging and they knew this is what they wanted and I think their adrenaline kicked in,” Kunisaki said. “They didn’t play tired; they didn’t play defeated.”

Retired McClatchy High School teacher and former varsity basketball head coach Harvey Tahara traveled to Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif. to watch the game. He said he noticed the different playing styles between the two teams, the Lady Cavaliers being more physical.

“I think McClatchy did a great job of trying to figure out what they had to do,” he said. “They pretty much stayed with their own style of play: They played up-tempo, pushed the ball and defensively they were very tough.”

A Young Leader
Completing her fourth year as head coach of the Lady Lions, 28-year-old Kunisaki has more than 20 years of experience playing basketball. She began playing at 5 years old at the instructional level with the Buddhist Church of Sacramento and continued through to Division C when she was middle school. In the eighth grade, Kunisaki joined the Barons Athletic Organization, one of three Asian American club basketball leagues in Sacramento, and played for the full five years until she graduated high school.

At the same time, Kunisaki played point guard all four years at McClatchy and continued playing for three years at Chapman University, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership before earning her master’s degree in counseling at California State University, Sacramento.

Tahara said Kunisaki was “a great joy to coach,” because she played hard and was really intelligent. He has known her since she was about 8 or 9 years old, when she attended the summer basketball camps he held at McClatchy High School.

Kunisaki has coached basketball at McClatchy High School for seven years. She previously coached the junior varsity team for two years and was Tahara’s assistant coach for the 2010-2011 year before he retired from coaching.

Kunisaki said she was nervous about following Tahara’s footsteps in taking over as varsity head coach.

“I wasn’t sure if I was ready,” she said. “I tried to take notes to see what he was doing so well.”

While Kunisaki was his assistant coach, Tahara noticed many qualities that make Kunisaki a good coach. He said she is young, but mature and genuine, is very poised and patient, has vast knowledge of the game and knows how to teach effectively.

“She has so many good qualities about her that I think she naturally draws kids to the kind of things that makes for a successful team,” he said.

As her former mentor, Tahara said he is thrilled to see her team win the state championship.

“To see her succeed at this level and lead a team to the state, it just doesn’t get much better than this,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of somebody.

I think she has just done a fantastic job.”

The Sacramento Bee named Kunisaki this year’s Girls All-Metro Coach of the Year for basketball.

Post-game Honors
Following a restful spring break after their championship win, Kunisaki and the Lady Lions were swept with a packed schedule of honoree events. On April 7, the Sacramento City Council recognized the team for winning the Division I State Championship at its city council meeting. District 4 Council Member Steve Hansen presented the resolution.

“It’s amazing what you’ve done. I think you made the city really proud and brought it home,” he said.

Many of the other council members echoed Hansen’s comment, also emphasizing the fact that they are a team of female athletes.

“When I heard it on the news and I had a chance to read it in the paper, I felt like I was a part of the team and you did that for a lot of people,” said District 7 Council Member Rick Jennings II. “So, hold your heads high, this was a historic moment.”

Later that evening, the Lady Lions were honored at the Kings NBA basketball game where they were introduced and threw small basketballs to the crowd during one of the game’s time outs. The Lions shared the honor with other local teams like the men’s and woman’s basketball teams from University of California, Davis and California State University, Sacramento; the Sacramento River Cats and the Sacramento Republic FC.

The Sacramento City Unified School District honored the team during its Board of Education meeting on April 9, where the team led the Pledge of Allegiance and received the Stellar Students recognition.

“We were so confident that you were going to win that we put you on the agenda before the game because we knew in our hearts that you would make us proud,” said Board of Education President Darrel Woo.

The Sacramento City staff organized an afternoon parade for the team on April 10, which marched from the high school on Freeport Boulevard to Cervantes Park.

The following week, the Lady Lions were honored at the County Board of Supervisors meeting on April 14 and Kunisaki said there may be a Senate Resolution in their honor in the future.

THE TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM — Coaches of McClatchy High School’s Varsity Women’s team. Left to right: assisstant coaches Jeff Ota and Que Ngo, head coach Jessica Kunisaki, athletic trainer Rohit Sharma, and assistant coach Carlos Vicenty  photo by Denise Tahara

THE TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM — Coaches of McClatchy High School’s Varsity Women’s team. Left to right: assisstant coaches Jeff Ota and Que Ngo, head coach Jessica Kunisaki, athletic trainer Rohit Sharma, and assistant coach Carlos Vicenty
photo by Denise Tahara

“To win this for more than just myself or for the girls, it has just felt really special to us,” Kunisaki said. Kunisaki also expressed thanks for the support from assistant coaches Jeff Ota and Que K. Ngo, who are also veteran coaches, and Carlos Vicenty.

Title IX  
The Lady Lions’ championship victory also highlighted a few other key elements. Not only was March Women’s History month, but their win is a symbolic of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Title IX, co-authored by the the late former Hawai‘i Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, is a federal law that “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice Website.

Had it not been for Mink’s work, Kunisaki and her team would not have had the opportunity to fight for the championship title.

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