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Dragon slayers?

Golden Eagles hope to buck trend against area power Sacramento
By: Eric J. Gourley Journal Sports Writer
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LOOMIS — It’s one of the section’s most one-sided playoff rivalries and Madeline Campbell can’t wait for another chance to change Del Oro High’s postseason fate. The star junior guard will get her opportunity tonight when the No. 2 Golden Eagles face No. 3 Sacramento High in what has practically become an annual March meeting between the Division III powers. If Del Oro hopes to finally slay the Dragons, it will need to have a short-term memory. Sacramento has won all four Sac-Joaquin Section playoff clashes. The Dragons ousted the Eagles in semifinals in 2005, 2007 and 2009 and in the quarterfinals in 2006. “We were definitely intimidated last year,” said Campbell, the team’s only three-year player. “I mean, they’ve beat us how many years in a row and they’re obviously a powerhouse. This year we’re trying to focus on their weaknesses and really get around the intimidation.” Despite impressive numbers like 50 consecutive Sierra Foothill League wins, five straight SFL titles and a superb 71-4 home record over the last five seasons, this challenge always sounds daunting. “It’s hard because even their name’s intimidating,” said forward Crystal Sewell. “They’re all from great AAU teams and most of them are going to play at really good colleges, but we’re not going to let them scare us like they did last year. I think we’re finally ready for Sac High.” Del Oro hasn’t been to a section final since 1999, but this junior-laden group hopes to get past the Dragons tonight at Consumnes River College and win the program’s third Division III title Friday at ARCO Arena. Several of the dozen juniors on the roster learned their fundamentals in middle school with the Pacific Pistols, one of the most established girls AAU programs in the foothills, and have been honing their skills on the same court ever since. “It really helps,” Campbell said. “We know each other’s pet move. We know where we want to get the ball to shoot. The chemistry comes really easy.” The camaraderie has simplified some swift ascents to lead roles after Del Oro graduated seven seniors from last year’s 26-2 squad. “You can see the cohesiveness and their ability to just kind of know where the others are going to be,” Takayama said. “Not only are they all very good individual basketball players but they play very well and unselfishly together.” Junior Becky Duncan took over the offense after minimal playing time a year ago. “It really takes quite a while to really learn the point guard position, how to quarterback a basketball team,” Takayama said. “She’s learning everyday and knocking down shots. She’s our best free throw shooter. She’s really been an integral part of our success. It’s no easy task being a point guard, especially at the higher level.” Campbell, who averages a team-high 16.9 points per game, was known almost exclusively for her long-range prowess before developing into a stellar all-around player this winter. Sewell, who averages a second-best 13 points, “may be one of the most natural finishers we’re ever had,” Takayama said. “All we’ve done this year is try to simplify her game,” he said. “She’s taken to the coaching so well. She got very few minutes last year as an understudy below quite a few seniors who were very capable.” 6-foot-1 center Belle Obert established herself as a defensive force last season, and her scoring is coming around. “She’s never considered herself the offensive threat that I think she’s very capable of being,” Takayama said. “She’s just now starting to shoot the ball with more confidence.” Freshman forward Brianna Ruiz and junior guard Taylor Donnot have also been instrumental. The Eagles scheduled four games against Sacramento-caliber teams during the regular season in anticipation of another semifinal showdown. “We’ve been under fire,” Takayama said. “Yes, we’ve lost all four, but I think in doing so we really found out more about ourselves and improved. Those games really put you in a situation where you have to make some adjustments. In league a lot of the teams really had to adjust to what we were doing.” Del Oro played zone for the first time on New Year’s Eve against Eastside College Prep, a defense the team rarely employs but may break out at times tonight against the Dragons. The Eagles then encountered a stifling full-court run-and-jump defense in a loss to Division II St. Francis at the Common Good Classic in January. “It was just pressure all over the floor,” Takayama said. “It really helped us work on our press break. We deal with presses a lot differently now.” Del Oro fell short in a physical halfcourt game at Division I Kennedy of Sacramento on Jan. 30 before stumbling against a long, athletic team with a dominant center in Division I Clovis West of Fresno last month. “They taught us how to execute,” Sewell said. “It’s hard to play really well when you’re playing against teams that aren’t on your level. You learn how to execute under pressure.” The Eagles will face plenty of it from Sacramento. The Dragons have caused fits with point guard Brittany Shine (16.4 points, 5.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 4.1 steals) and 6-foot-3 forward Kyra Dunn (10.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.5 blocks). “Their game plan hasn’t changed,” Takayama said. “They vary their full-court press and bring the game to you. They really attack you both offensively and defensively. I think a lot depends on the start. They jumped on us pretty early last year. If we can get ourselves set and stabilize the game early I’m very comfortable and confident. Our kids really believe in ourselves and what we can do.”