Opinion: Musings on the Coast

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Sage Hill Girls Show Their Winning Mamba Spirit

Disclosure: I am one of the Founders of Sage Hill School, a non-sectarian private high school off Newport Coast Drive, unofficial motto: “Excellence and Diversity in Equal Measure.”

Two years ago, a helicopter crash killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other girls and their parents, all of whom were part of Kobe’s burgeoning Mamba Sports Academy. The girls also were on the Sage Hill Girl’s Basketball team coached by Kerwin Walters, who was not on that flight but had been an active participant in the Mamba Academy.

Many men and the remaining girls would have turned to despair. Instead, they pushed through it by delving deep into Kobe’s own Mamba mantra and imbued the next year’s team with it. You never, ever give up. You always keep your cool. You focus.

And you execute the game plan. You win.

That was how Kerwin and his girls managed the grief: they used that Mamba energy and turned it into spun gold.

Last year, in the season following the accident, Kerwin coached the remaining girls to the CIF Southern California Championship. For Sage, with only 550 students and competing against schools many times that size, it was a big deal.

This year, the school purchased black Mamba T-Shirts for the players and fans with “RESPECT ALL” on the front and “FEAR NONE” on the back. Mamba.

The team featured four girls from the prior year and like them, won the SoCal title. Then they were on to the state-wide elimination games and finals: one loss and you are out. But four wins in a row take the whole State Championship.

I watched those games, and they were almost mystical. First, Sage played Santiago High School and won 43-41 on its last shot with three seconds left. Then they played Long Beach Poly and won 42-39 with five seconds left.

Finally, it came down to March 12, when Sage played San Joaquin Memorial High School or the entire State Championship. An arduous game, Sage was 13 behind in the second quarter and laboring—until sophomores Kat Righeimer and Emily Eadie hit explosive key shots and Sage closed to within six points.

Bryant once said younger players shouldn’t “ever want to place a ceiling on a performance in what you can do.” Sage took that magic and let it fly passing the ball with an almost supernatural synchronicity from player to player, and with single-minded grace propelled the team ever forward into a ferocious finish.

Sage continued to trail in the third quarter when senior point-guard Isabel Gomez hit a three-pointer. Then at the start of the fourth, she stole the ball and drove for another two points. But Sage was still losing.

All the while, coach Kerwin stood, arms crossed, slowly pacing back and forth, but not waving his arms, nor shouting, screaming at referees, nor losing his temper. Kerwin Walters is the opposite of the typical frenzied coach. He is cool, calm, collected, and his team mirrored this.

In the last 90 seconds, sophomore Emily Eadie drove for two baskets to take a two-point lead, and with 28 seconds left, Gomez nailed it with two free throws.

It won the trophy 51-47. Yet in absolutely fantastical fashion: during the entire game, Sage led for a total of one minute and nine seconds.

Then the screaming! Did we actually do this? Did we win State? Whoa!

Kobe’s vision was carried in the hearts of these young players and they carried it home.

Only Isabel will be gone next year after moving on to the University of Pennsylvania, but the other starters are sophomores and will be back.

I can’t wait. Mamba!

Michael is a Laguna Beach resident and principal officer emeritus of Laguna Forward PAC.

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