The Ascencion Solorsano Middle School eighth-grade girls basketball team had already made history entering the East Side Athletic League ‘A’ tournament championship game against host Chaboya of San Jose on Dec. 2.
However, the Eagles weren’t finished and capped its historic season with a riveting 33-26 win. Solorsano went 6-1 in the ESAL South Division to win the first league title in program history before winning three playoff games in capturing the tournament championship.
The Eagles’ only loss came to Herman, 28-27, on Nov. 2, a defeat they avenged in the semifinals of the ESAL tournament by eight points. But what Solorsano did against Chaboya topped everything. Chaboya went 8-0 in the North Division and were routinely blowing out opponents. It looked like the red-hot Colts were on the cusp of running away from the Eagles, taking a 8-2 lead with 1 minute, 20 seconds left in the first quarter.
Chaboya also led 18-9 midway through the second quarter when Solorsano coach Daniel Browne employed pressure defense, sending two defenders to every Chaboya ball handler to force mistakes. It worked to perfection. Solorsano ended the first half on a 8-0 run before outscoring the Colts 8-4 in the third quarter to take the lead for good.
Malia Harding scored 13 points and Kamryn Krejdovsky had nine to lead the way. Browne was so excited after the final buzzer he ran to the middle of the floor and dove head first. Browne, a Solorsano teacher who had no prior basketball coaching experience prior to this season, took the job after being encouraged by the players and the school principal.
“I was told they might not have a season if they didn’t have a coach and it seemed wrong,” he said. “After last year and missing athletics altogether, these girls deserved an opportunity to play and show our school has some really special and talented kids. These girls, when they walked in my classroom at the beginning of the year, they wanted a shot at the championship. They never quit, they play for each other and they love each other so much. They’re in my classroom everyday at lunch and are talking. There’s no team that loves each other more than these girls do.”
The roster includes Harding, Krejdovsky, Lana Pham, Brooklen Epps, Kaitlyn Nguyen, Chioma Okeke, Adalyn Mosher, Cassandra Durand, Aliyah Garcia, Kathleen Vicek, Anaya Rosso and Kylie Jimenez. Harding was dynamite, in one sequence forcing a turnover and then scoring on an acrobatic, up-and-under runner over two defenders midway through the second.
Time and again, Harding made a big bucket, whether it was driving to the basket, on runners and beating defenders down the floor for fastbreak layups.
“Malia is a rock and all star on this team,” Browne said. “I don’t have to coach Malia a lot. She goes out there and gets it done. She is the heart and soul of the team, and Kamryn, too. We have an incredible team and they make me look really good as a coach.”
The Eagles took their first lead on Harding’s layup, making it 19-18 with 6:15 left in the third. The lead would change hands two more times before Solorsano took the lead for good when Okeke and Epps scored back-to-back buckets to end the quarter.
Krejdovsky wasn’t shy about hoisting up shots, attempting 18. Although her shooting percentage wasn’t great, the vast majority of her shots would be considered good ones. Because of her size and athleticism, Krejdovsky was always able to get separation and enough daylight from her defender to put up those shots, and at the eighth-grade level not all players have that type of ability.
Okeke underscored the team’s dominance on the glass as she grabbed a half-dozen offensive rebounds. Epps, Nguyen and Durand played tough defense, which keyed the game’s turnaround. Once the Eagles started amping up the pressure, it created several fast-break scoring opportunities and just as importantly forced Chaboya into countless turnovers in the second half.
“Our offense is predicated on getting the defense into the transition game and getting turnovers,” Browne said. “That’s how we played all year and a lot of teams are uncomfortable playing that way. We practiced a lot of run and gun, a lot of fastbreak, and it worked. It was like a switch that was flipped and no one had an answer for it.”
Browne was proud of the girls for being resilient even when it fell behind early. Even when the team was struggling offensively, it stayed strong on the boards and on defense.
“Our defense never quits,” Browne said. “I tell the girls all the time our shots might not fall, but defense never stops.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.