The arena was more than half empty, not almost half-full. Bakersfield was a gracious host, though in California it should be considered North, not South. Yet those who navigated up Interstate 5 and Highway 99 saw some outstanding moments in one of the California Interscholastic Federation's marquee weekends.
There was the rise of role players, as Sydney Hadel, Harvard-Westlake's fourth-leading scorer on the season, delivered a game-high 20 points to give coach Melissa Hearlihy a first state title after 25 years of producing mostly excellent teams.
There was the high-flying aerobatics of Richard Solomon and Allen Crabbe of Price. The dynamic duo gave California a glimpse of what might be expected in their college careers as the program won its fifth title in the last 10 years.
San Diego Lincoln won that section's first state title above Division III, and with Norman Powell just a junior, showed that it may not be done. The Hornets consistently buzzed above the rim.
Yet for all of the above the rim highlights provided by Price and Lincoln, the most memorable shot belonged to a girl on the seat of her pants. Mater Dei's Shayla Batson, a reserve on arguably the No. l team in the country, was seated in the paint with players surrounding her when she put the ball in the basket. Coach Kevin Kiernan jokingly referred to the impromptu moment as “Play 36,” but Batson provided a play that will be memorable for many beyond Mater Dei's hallways.
And that was just the first day.
We saw a team with its best days ahead of it, St. Anthony's, whose journey to the finals showed that coach James Anderson – who guided Narbonne to two Division I championships – can be just as effective at the tiniest of schools too. The Saints were beaten by a four-time state champion which was in the finals for the fourth time in six seasons.
La Verne Lutheran's offense scored a season-low 35 points – and won! It was 10 points fewer than it had scored this season, 20 points fewer than it had scored in any other victory. Oh, they came back from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter.
We saw the grace and dignity of Bishop Amat, which was the focus of St. Mary's agenda that led to a record-setting 48-point victory. Coach Richard Wiard would not bite publicly as to whether or not his opponent was running up the score to try to prove the point that it was the No. 1 team in the country, but he did acknowledge that if the roles were reversed, he probably would not have been pressing in the fourth quarter.
Westchester won a second consecutive title, and we were treated to more Dwayne Polee highlights that very few high school players can reproduce. There weren't a lot of them because he wanted to focus on rebounding, but he's worth looking up on YouTube.
There was even an upset that was worth talking about. Long Beach Poly was ranked fifth in the nation by ESPN Rise and was trying to win an unprecedented fifth straight state title. Instead, the Jackrabbits hardly looked interested. The unPoly-like performance – in every aspect of the game – was forgettable. And in their extreme disappointment, they didn't make excuses.
And we also saw Gardena Serra win a title that was expected but wasn't a certainty. The team had been playing in the memory of Vaughn Autry's father, Stephen Autry, who died before this playoff journey began. It ended with Autry sinking the free throw that locked up the championship.
A journey that ended as it should.