This year’s Warriors made it look so easy, Del Norte fans could be forgiven for asking what took them so long?
On Tuesday, they made it official, clinching the school’s first-ever Big 5 championship in girls basketball outright with a commanding 74-43 win over McKinleyville in Crescent City.
“It’s unbelievable,” Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton said. “To get a first ever for the program. Girls basketball here has never really had a program, it’s always been volleyball, volleyball, volleyball.”
More impressively, this could very well be the beginning of a dominating era for the program, and with three sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup, Warriors fans may not have to wait quite as long for a second title.
“Since I got involved four years ago, we’ve started building the program slowly, and now it’s just a solid program,” Clifton said. “And we’re here to stay.”
The Warriors, who improved to 7-0 in the Big 5 and 18-2 overall, have gotten stronger as league play has gone on.
Through their opening three conference games, they outscored their opponents by an average of 11 points a game, while in their past four, they have outscored them by an average of 27, while beating all four by at least 23.
On senior night, the Warriors honored Kaleya Sanchez and Shelby Horner, who each turned in big performances in the win with 20 and nine points, respectively.
Sophomore Jadence Clifton, who has emerged as one of the top guards in the Big 5 this winter, finished with a team-high 22 points.
Once again, the Warriors had to overcome a slow start before quickly pulling away, putting some separation between the two teams midway through the second quarter and continuing that in the second half.
Sanchez and Jadence Clifton each had a double-double.
Afterwards Justin Clifton paid tribute to the Panthers’ tenacity.
“They fought hard all the way,” he said. “(Head coach) Tony (McClure) has done a really good job there.”
Rayn Tripp finished with a team-high 13 points for the Panthers, including going 3 of 4 from 3-point range.
The Warriors will try to complete a perfect conference campaign at Eureka on Thursday, while the Panthers now face a huge matchup at home to Fortuna on the same night with third place in the league standings and qualification for this year’s Dick Niclai tournament at stake.
Arcata 35, Fortuna 53
The Huskies set up an intriguing battle for third place in the Big 5 with a comfortable win at home to Arcata on Tuesday night.
The win improves the Huskies to 3-4 in conference play, the same as McKinleyville, whom they visit in the regular season finale on Thursday.
Appropriately, it was the team’s seniors — Camrin Dolcini, Jordyn Quen and Bailey Parker — who stepped up against Arcata on what was senior night.
Dolcini, who has been a driving force all season for the team, finished with a game-high 21 points.
“Camrin played so good, and that was nice to see, especially on senior night,” Fortuna head coach Jesse Gernaro said. “She’s the ultimate competitor.”
Parker, he added, is the “ultimate teammate.”
“She’s very supportive of her teammates. Kind of the glue when it comes to moral, and she’s a smart basketball player,” he said.
Quen, one of the team’s best defensive players, was described by the head coach as “gritty.”
“She’s tough as nails,” he said. “She does all the little things for us.”
Juniors Charlotte Carroll and Grace Shaha each added 10 points in the win, with the latter particularly effective after a season that has seen her minutes limited due to sickness.
“She was huge for us,” Genaro said of Shaha.
Raja Cohen finished with a team-high 11 points for the Tigers, who close out league play at 0-8, while Sophia Belton had 10 points.
The Tigers close out the season at 8-15, while the Huskies are now 13-10.
Genaro is confident his players will be up for Thursday’s big showdown.
“I think we match up very well against them,” Genaro said of the Panthers, whom the Huskies beat 48-27 two weeks ago. “We have an inside presence that they don’t have.”
Eureka 67, Ferndale 38
The Loggers got points from all 11 players on Tuesday night, running out to a comfortable win over Little 4 opposition.
Keylei Carroll, Tiana Rodgers and Paige Lyons each scored a team-high 10 points for Eureka, which improved to 17-7 on the season.
Carly Boynton also had a big night in the win, finishing with nine points.
Bryleigh Busick led the Wildcats with nine points, while Macey Sutherland and Natalee Guerrero each finished with eight points.
The Loggers close out the regular season at home to Del Norte on Thursday night.
The Wildcats, who dropped to 9-11, travel to South Fork on Thursday.
Ray Hamill writes at humboldtsports.com, where you can read lots more about sports in Humboldt County.