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Lady Reds bring home Blue Banner


Calaveras Redskins R.B. Ruhl. left, Nikki Gleason, center and Savannah Duncan, right, are all smiles moments after Calaveras won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championship at Power Balance Pavilion on Saturday. The Redskins defeated West Campus 56-45. JASON BUCK/UNION DEMOCRAT
They did it. On Saturday in Sacramento, it took the Calaveras Redskins 32 minutes, four quarters, to win the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship.
    And now, to coin a phrase, they’ll have the rest of their lives to remember it.
    After No. 1-seed Calaveras defeated No. 3 West Campus, 56-45, the Redskins’ four senior co-captains — Maddie Cox, R.B. Ruhl, Savannah Duncan and Nikki Gleason — stood at center-court at Power Balance Pavilion, each with a memento.
    Cox was wearing a medal signifying her as the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Sportsmanship winner.
    Fitting for sure. On Saturday, after a whistle, when a West Campus forward was laying on the court, Cox helped her up.

  “This award,” said Cox, “makes me feel like I’m a good person.”
    No question about that. Her teammates will tell you that Cox works hard, plays tough — but does everything with honor.
    But, generally speaking, to be noticed for your good sportsmanship by the section, you must also be noticed as a good player.
    And Cox is more than good. She is a sensational player.
    On Saturday, as per usual, there she was — diving all over the hardwood for loose balls, grabbing boards, dishing assists, playing fantastic defense. Cox scored 11 points, had a game-high four steals and a game-high 15 rebounds.
    And standing next to Cox at center-court was starting guard Ruhl who was wearing the championship net around her neck.
    “This,” said Ruhl, “is what I wanted today — the net.”
    At 5-foot tall, the forever-energetic Ruhl personifies what Calaveras basketball is all about — heart.
    Calaveras almost always plays man defense and so Ruhl is perpetually guarding players three-to-seven inches taller. Unfair? Sure it is — for the player who has the misfortune of being stalked by Ruhl.
    You could video Ruhl playing defense — relentless, attacking, willing to take a charge — and show it to young kids as a how-to-defend disc.
    And then there was starting guard Duncan proudly holding blue. Yep, the Blue Banner.
    Every year, the Sac-Joaquin Section hands out a Blue Banner to a championship team. It’s been 20 years since any area basketball team won a section title (Sonora boys’ 1992) and 37 years since the Calaveras Lady Reds last took home a Blue Banner.
    “No one will get this out of my hands,” said Duncan with a laugh. “I’m keeping it forever.”
    She’s kidding, of course.
    On Monday, that beautiful Blue Banner will be waving proudly from the rafters of Mike Flock Gym in San Andreas.
    Duncan played the greatest game of her life in the most significant game of her life. She scored a team-high 19 points, grabbed nine boards and dished three assists.
    And when it mattered most — that fourth quarter on Saturday — with a championship to be won, Duncan made clutch play after clutch play to secure that Blue Banner.
    And what’s left to be said about the incomparable Nikki Gleason? The 5-foot-6 point guard was proudly holding the title-game basketball that will forever rest in the Calaveras trophy case.
    It’s most fitting Gleason would hold that basketball as it is she, in the offensive structure that Calaveras runs, who has possession of that ball 90 percent of the time.
    You can’t press Calaveras because Gleason will break it. You can’t sag too deep on her because she has an outstanding shot. Get in her face and she’ll whip by you with cunning-ease. She’s a fabulous slasher, distributor, scorer, defender and team leader.
    Gleason is a winner — in every sense of the word.             When she was a 5-foot-3 freshman, Gleason was starting on varsity. And if you were fortunate enough to watch her play as a frosh, you knew she was special.
    Gleason led Calaveras to the championship game last year as a junior. Modesto Christian won the blue in 2011. But Gleason was determined that she and her teammates weren’t leaving Sacramento this year without that championship ball.
    On Saturday, Gleason scored nine points, dished three assists, played excellent defense and, as per usual, made sure Calaveras played disciplined, stayed in control, stayed in command and kept cool.
    “Honestly,” said Gleason, “I think the key to winning this championship game was our experience from last year. In the first quarter today, both teams were jittery. But after that, we calmed down, we played our game. We hit some big shots, made some big plays and never stopped working as a team.”
    Gleason swished two free throws with 25 seconds left in the first quarter vs. West Campus, and Calaveras trailed by one.
    With six seconds left, West Campus missed a shot, Redskin forward Megan Coleman grabbed the board and passed ahead to Gleason.
    Then Gleason flew upcourt and spotted starting forward Brianna McGinness rushing towards the tin. Gleason pulled up, faked a shot, hit McGinness in perfect stride, the layin was good, the buzzer went off and Calaveras led 11-10.
    With 6:05 left in the first half, Duncan grabbed an offensive rebound eight feet from the cup, calmly sank that shot, Calaveras led 16-14 and would never again relinquish the lead.
    Not that West Campus — an excellent team with a 24-7 record — folded up and conceded. The Warriors managed to stay in the Redskins’ rear-view mirror most of the game, sometimes riding bumper.
    With 5:10 left in the second quarter, Calaveras was ahead by four. Cox had position for an offensive board but a cruel bounce off the rim made for a long defensive rebound and West Campus had a fast break.
    Seconds later, just before West Campus forward Haley Shaner attempted a four-footer, Cox, hustling back, picked Shaner’s pocket and handed the rock to Gleason.
    Then Gleason quickly dribbled upcourt and once she made it to the arc, three Warriors surrounded her — all three of ‘em quick guards.
    One on three. Not fair — to West Campus.
    Gleason glided by Sokopeti Paongo, cross-dribbled past Eunique Nelson, went up for a layin while Barbara Keomany was all over her, canned her layup anyways and Keomany was called for a foul.
    Later, with 2:20 left in the half, West Campus had cut that lead to two.
    Duncan dished to senior reserve guard Paulina Mejia behind the arc. Mejia hadn’t taken a single shot all game.
    “But right there,” said Mejia, “it just felt right. It was an in-the-moment type of shot.”
    And it was one huge shot. That basketball completely ignored the rim, tucked safely into nylon and Calaveras (28-2) led by five.
    With 1:40 left in the half, Cox grabbed an offensive rebound and was engulfed. But she spotted junior forward Bridgette McGinness behind the arc and dished. McGinness drained a trey and Calaveras led by eight.
    Cox dribbled baseline with 1:09 to go, drew defenders on the right side of the glass, so she kept going and tossed in a reverse layin.
    And so Calaveras led 28-18 at halftime. And the Redskins led 37-30 heading into the final frame.
    West Campus opened the fourth quarter on an 11-5 run and trailed just 42-41.
    Then Cox hit two freebies and, with 3:37 left, Duncan dribbled around the arc and got West Campus dizzy. Duncan, by this time, had already drained three treys — no Warrior thought she was driving.
    And they were wrong. Duncan slashed past the Warriors’ aircraft carriers, went to the hoop and banked home a deuce.
    “Yes,” said the 5-foot-6 Duncan with a smile, “you could call that move ‘The Nikki.’ Honestly, those are some tall girls they had there, No. 32 (6-foot Erianna Williams) and No. 35 (6-foot Shaner). But I was going for it. So I just pushed my way in there.”
    With 1:56 left and Calaveras up by three, Duncan again was on the perimeter dribbling, drew some added attention and slyly handed off to Gleason, who was 17-feet away.
    Close enough.
    “It was such a nice handoff from Savannah,” explained Gleason. “And the inside was packed and they seemed to be waiting for me to drive and I thought, ‘They’re giving me an open look.’ So I just shot it and it went in.”
    And Calaveras led 51-46.
    Later, with 1:13 to play, and Calaveras up by seven, Duncan hit a free throw, missed her second attempt and then alertly grabbed the board. She was 11-feet away, let it fly, swished the shot and sealed this championship for Calaveras.
    “This is an amazing feeling that we all have now,” said Gleason. “And you know what makes this championship 10 times sweeter? It’s great to win a championship with a team that you love.”

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