The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Sacramento Queens: A look at the Girls’ basketball championship season

Darlene Bible

Suspended 24 feet in the air, the Golden 1 Center’s blinding video board displayed the score for all to see in the arena at the start of halftime: Harvard-Westlake Wolverines: 24, and Colfax Falcons: 28 with Colfax in the lead. As the girls’ basketball team shuffled into the locker room, guard  Angelina Habis ’27 was reminded of all the struggles that the team had gone through to get to this point. The Wolverines came out on fire, behind 10 second-half points from Habis and 10 fourth-quarter points from guard Deana Thompson ’25. Just over thirty minutes later, the video board displayed Harvard-Westlake Wolverines: 60, and Colfax Falcons: 45. The girls’ basketball team had just captured the Division 2 State Championship, its second state championship in program history, and its first since 2010.  Habis said winning a state championship was a surreal moment for her and the team.

“It was the biggest game I’ve ever played in, and when the whistle blew everything came and hit me,” Habis said. “It was a long season. It wasn’t easy. I remembered all of the tears, all of the sweat that we had [endured]  trying to get to this point, and it was such an amazing moment. We did it and nobody thought that we could.”

On the road to this moment, the girls worked through injuries and adversity every step of the way.  Over the summer, forward Bella Spencer ’25, the team’s leading rebounder and scorer in the previous season, tore her ACL. Only one week before the team’s first game, guard Jamie Yue ’24, the team’s leader in assists and steals last year, suffered a knee injury during practice that would sideline her until January. Girls’ basketball Program Head Melissa Hearlihy said losing Yue was detrimental to the team both on and off the court.

“We started this season without our senior point guard, and she’s the head of our snake,” Hearlihy said. “She leads our offense, she certainly is the head of our defense with her ball pressure which allows us to play up on the ball and not worry about driving lanes and passing. So, being without her was a big deal because that’s what we rely on to win. We’re young to begin with and now we were down two starters, our point guard and our best rebounder, to start the season.”

The team began Mission League play with a 4-12 record, dropping notable games to  Corona Santiago,  Redondo Union and Windward. In addition to Yue and Spencer, the team was also without Thompson, Habis and guard Madison McDonald ’26 for parts of this stretch.

With these injuries, the team was almost entirely made up of freshmen and sophomores. Guard Kamari McNeely ’24 was the only other upperclassman on the roster. Hearlihy said it was difficult for the younger players to combat the challenges they were facing without a strong leader on the court.

“We were struggling in all areas,” Hearlihy said. “The young kids came in and they were trying to figure it out and adjust to the high school level. It was a matter of us getting it figured out. It’s hard for kids to try to fix things on their own. It’s important for them to figure out who they are before we can figure out who we are as a team.”

In her first year on the team, Habis said she learned a lot from the opportunity to guide the team for the first time.

“I’ve learned a lot of things from my upperclassmen on how to be a better leader,” Habis said. “Being a leader is more than just how many points you can score or how well you do on the court. Once I started getting confident in my basketball skills, it transferred to my leadership on the court. It was a great experience being able to step into that leadership role as a freshman.”

With Spencer out of the lineup, Hearlihy relied heavily on forward Valentina Guerrero ’26 to fill the void near the basket. Guerrero said she had trouble with her larger role at first but grew as the season progressed.

“I struggled a little bit in the beginning,” Guerrero said. “My teammates had always supported me from the beginning, and once I was fully able to step into the role and let go of all my nerves I was able to do a good job with  scoring, rebounding and helping my team.”

The team then started Mission League play 3-1 and ultimately finished in third place with a 5-5 record, behind Chaminade and Sierra Canyon. Thompson said the Mission League season was a turning point in the team’s season.

“The transition point of our season was in league play,” Thompson said. “We started winning those games and that gave us more motivation. Even during practice, we were running our sets better and practicing with more energy. That put us in the mindset of telling ourselves that we can win state.”

But in the final game of Mission League play, Guerrero broke her nose, leaving the team with an additional hole in the starting lineup. After the injury, Hearlihy called up Oyinkan Iriafen ’27 from the junior varsity team to fill Guerrero’s spot. Iriafen’s older sister, Kiki Iriafen ’21 was a McDonald’s All-American her senior year and is now a starter for the Stanford women’s basketball team. Hearlihy said Oyinkan Iriafen is more developed in parts of her game than Kiki Iriafen was at her age.

“Going down and playing on the junior varsity team gave her the ability to play more freely,” Hearlihy said. “Kiki told me Oyinkan is more athletic than she is. I said ‘Come on Kiki,’ and she goes ‘No coach, she’s much more athletic than I am.’ Kiki is right. Oyinkan is quicker-footed, and she’s not as good offensively as Kiki yet as far as catching and scoring. However, Kiki was not as good on the defensive end as Oyinkan is.”

Oyinkan Iriafen said her sister has inspired a lot of her game.

“There are definitely expectations as Kiki’s sister, but I wasn’t nervous or anything,” Oyinkan Iriafen said. “I was excited because she played with [Yue] and [McNeely], and now I get to play with them. My sister has had a huge impact because just watching her play at Stanford I’ve learned moves, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to do those in a game. She’s had a huge positive impact on me.”

Third place in the Mission League was enough to secure the team a spot in the CIF-SS Division 1 Championships. They went on to defeat Hart before avenging their previous losses to Windward and Redondo Union. Thompson said the win against Windward revealed the team’s true potential.

“The CIF-SS game against Windward was significant because they were a ranked team, and we had lost to them earlier in the season,” Thompson said. “Knowing that we could beat them, and understanding the quality of their team, gave us so much confidence going forward.”

Ultimately, they lost to Corona Santiago, the same team they faced in the first game of the season, 49-65, in the semifinals, with a final score of 42-48. However, despite this performance, the team was placed in the running for the Division 2 State Championships. Hearlihy said their placement into Division 2 enabled the team to continue their hot streak into CIF State playoffs.

“It’s odd how the season is gone,” Hearlihy said. “We had losses to Louisville and Oak Park, and they do the seedings at the end based on who has played and how they fared, and not what division you are in. The fact that we had lost to those teams took us out of Division 1 and put us in Division 2, which gave us an amazing opportunity. That’s when we all opened our eyes, and it’s not that we could win, it’s that we should win. We finally felt like that path had been laid for us to accomplish what we were trying to accomplish all year.”

In the Division 2 State Championships, the girls beat Tehachapi and JSerra at home before getting revenge on Oak Park on the road. Then the team beat Mission League rival Notre Dame High School for the third time this season to advance to the state championship game in Sacramento. In the game against Notre Dame, Guerrero returned from her broken nose with a clear mask and had 15 points and four offensive rebounds in her first game back.

With Guerrero’s return, the entire team, except for Spencer, was ready for the championship game against Colfax. The game went back and forth between both teams, but the girls pulled away in the end, with Thompson scoring ten points in the fourth quarter, to secure the Division 2 State Championship. Hearlihy said winning the state championship was the final goal that the team had set for itself prior to the season.

“It’s a real honor to be at this school and to coach the kids that I do,” Hearlihy said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group for their resilience in turning our season around and making it a championship season. On our vision board that we created at the beginning of the year, this was our final goal. The first two goals were winning the Mission League and CIF-SS, which we weren’t able to accomplish, but we did achieve the most important one. So, I’m very proud of them.”

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