The Del Norte girls basketball team found itself trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter. For the second game in a row the Warriors buckled down and put together a furious rally to make the game close down the stretch.

But Del Norte’s rally fell just a few points short once again as the No. 6 Warriors dropped a high-scoring 75-70 showdown with No. 11 Palo Alto in the first round of the California Interscholastic Federation Division II Girls State Basketball Tournament on Tuesday in Thunen Gymnasium.

“It was a great game,” said Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton. “We fell behind a little bit and they are a deep team. We were able to make some good adjustments, but regardless the girls played great. That is just how these girls are — they really just don’t give up. We had a phenomenal year. I am very thankful to have been a part of this team. It is fun coaching this team because they are great kids — every single one of them. We had a record breaking season.”

Although the Warriors ended up with the loss, they gave the Central Coast Section Division I runner up all that it could handle.

“I’m sure Del Norte feels really bad, and we would feel bad if we lost, but that was just two great teams going at each other blow for blow,” said Palo Alto head coach Scott Peters. “(Del Norte) plays so hard, and number 21 (Kaleya Sanchez) is amazing. But we believed in each other, we kept playing, and it just came down to who made plays at the end. What a great game.”

Palo Alto came out hot from the field and knocked down shots all game long with a nice mix of three-pointers and crafty drives to the basket as it jumped out to an early advantage. The Warriors, meanwhile, struggled to hit their open looks from outside in the early going as the Vikings pushed their lead up as high as 16 points in the second quarter.

Del Norte’s Kaleya Sanchez managed to keep the Warriors in the game with lots of transition layups and some tough buckets in the post as the senior standout tallied 12 points in the first quarter and 20 points in the first half. Sophomore Jadence Clifton also scored 10 first-half points to help keep the Warriors within nine points, trailing 41-32 at halftime.

Del Norte cut Palo Alto’s lead down to six points on three separate occasions in the third quarter, but a late 6-2 run by the Vikings restored a comfortable lead at 59-48 heading into the final period.

The Warriors continued to try to claw their way back in the fourth quarter but Palo Alto kept putting up points to keep Del Norte at arms length for the first five minutes of the final period. The Vikings eventually found themselves with an 11-point lead after a drive to the basket for a layup with 3:08 remaining.

But then Del Norte finally caught fire.

Sanchez started the run by grabbing an offensive rebound and drawing a foul on her put back attempt, making both free throws with 2:48 remaining.

Palo Alto managed to beat a rare Del Norte press down the court, but fumbled the ball out of bounds near the basket on its next possession.

Bella Stone then knocked down a three pointer with 2:23 left in the game, followed by a quick steal by Kirsten Brous on the full court pressure. Brous quickly fired a pass over to Clifton who nailed a deep three pointer to complete a 8-0 run over the span of 40 seconds that forced a timeout by Palo Alto with 2:05 remaining, Del Norte within a possession of tying the game at 68-65, and the crowd at Thunen Gymnasium as loud as it has been all season.

With less than a minute left, Annika Shah finally pushed the Vikings almost out of reach when she was fouled on a 3-pointer that hit the backboard and banked in with 59 seconds left. Shah then made the free throw to complete the four-point play, making the score 72-65.

Stone answered the four-point play with another three for the Warriors, but Del Norte couldn’t pull any closer and Palo Alto managed to hang on to the lead in the closing seconds.

“That is just what we do,” Clifton said of the team’s big fourth-quarter comeback for the second game in a row. “We haven’t been in a lot of close games, so we aren’t really used to doing that, but we never give up. When you stay in the fight that is going to be the outcome. We had it all the way down to three points and then their girl hit a bank shot 3-pointer and got fouled for a four-point play. It is what it is.”

As the clock hit zero and the final buzzer signaled the end of a historic season for the Warriors, the home crowd — packed to the brim with Warrior fans — gave the Del Norte girls team a standing ovation that lasted for roughly 90 seconds.

“It’s amazing,” Clifton said. “I remember the days when they would bring out one bleacher and darn-near not even charge to get in. Now we are packing the house. That is very, very exciting for this team and our program. Boys basketball does a great job with fans and now you have girls basketball doing a great job with fans. A lot of people traveled to our games too this year. It is awesome, and the girls deserved it.”

Peters said the atmosphere in Thunen Gym was as good or better than any he has seen at a high school game this season.

“I just have to take my hat off to your town and the way they support their high school girls basketball team. We have about eight fans that made the trip. You packed this gym and it made it one of the best high school experiences that we have had this year,” Peters said. “Your town is awesome for supporting their team. It is a beautiful thing. I hope the girls appreciate the support that they are getting, because it is a great thing.”

Sanchez finished with a game-high 34 points in the loss, while Clifton chipped in 21 points for the Warriors.

Del Norte’s top scoring duo left Peters impressed, and the Palo Alto coach took a minute to give Jadence Clifton a few words of encouragement after the postgame handshakes, while the rest of the Vikings were still celebrating their first-round win.

“I just think (Clifton) and (Sanchez) are just unbelievable players. We can’t guard them,” Peters said. “(Clifton) has got a shot fake, she drives left, she drives right, she hit a big deep three. Then (Sanchez) is just an amazing player. When she isn’t scoring she is getting the offensive rebound. But Jadence just gave her heart out there. I know she is hurting right now but she is an amazing player and it was fun to coach against her — to watch somebody who has worked at their craft that hard.”

As a sophomore, Jadence Clifton still has a couple more years to compete for the Warriors. It was the last high school basketball game for Sanchez, however, who has turned herself into one of the best players in school history in her senior season.

“As long as I am coaching here no one will ever wear No. 21 again,” Clifton said, referencing Sanchez jersey number. “We are going to try to retire that number — I think it’s right. I still have to do a little bit of math, but I’m pretty sure she is the all time leading scorer at this school. I know she was really close before the playoffs started. I wish I could have coached her for four years.”

Brous tallied 8 points for Del Norte, Bella Stone added 5, and Selene Ledezma chipped in two points.

Shah finished with 33 points for Palo Alto to lead a trio of Vikings that scored in double figures.

“I think we ran our offense well,” Peters said. “Annika Shah can really put the ball in the hoop, but we ran some other stuff and a couple other players contributed. We ran some good offense and then tried to hold on for dear life.”

With the loss Del Norte finishes its historic girls basketball season with a 24-4 overall record.

“They have nothing to hang their head about at all. It is a very talented group of kids, and they have memories that will last forever,” Clifton said. “Obviously we played a very competitive schedule because they bumped us up to Division II and realistically, looking at that D4 bracket, we would probably win that bracket.

“It was a very fun year. We have a lot of competitiveness on this team which was good because they drive each other to get better. And every time I turned around there was another record being broken — most wins, most wins in a row, most points in a season for a team, least amount of points allowed.”

The Warriors also won the schools first ever Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 championship in girls basketball this season, reached the North Coast Section Division IV semifinals and the championship game for the first time ever, and qualified for the CIF State Tournament for the first time ever where they were placed in a Division II bracket along with some of the largest schools and most successful teams in Northern California.

“Our goal going into it was to play into March, and I think if we would have gotten a fair shake out of the deal we would have played into March — I really believe that,” Clifton said. “But my hat is off to these girls. They left everything on that court. The bottom line is that there are a lot of teams that have come through this school and they have the same conversations that we had in there at the end of the game — they are always sad. But at the end of the day we got records that will stand, and we got two banners that we get to hang up in our gym. I’m very proud of these girls.”

Clifton said he hopes the experience gained this season will continue to pay dividends down the road. Although Del Norte has two seniors set to graduate this spring in Sanchez and Shelby Horner, the Warriors have three juniors, seven sophomores, and a freshman on its postseason roster who will all be eligible to return next year.

“We are a young team and the girls have gotten tons of experience,” Clifton said. “I’m proud of this team. Every single girl on this team competed, and they literally left everything that they could leave on the court. That is what every coach dreams of and every coach asks for. It is a bright future for Del Norte girls basketball. We are losing two girls and we have a young team this year, so it is not time to rebuild, it is time to progress. Everybody needs to progress, get in that weight room, and move on. But these girls will have these memories forever.”

Competitive equity

For the state tournament, the CIF takes all the qualifying teams and redistributes them into various brackets based on the teams’ perceived strength, rather than the size of the school they represent. That is how Del Norte, who has played as a Division IV school all season long, ended up matched up in a Division II bracket against a Division I school in the first round of the state tournament.

Although Tuesday’s showdown certainly produced a competitive game, Clifton said the system needs to be re-thought as it seems to put smaller public schools at a significant disadvantage.

“The big thing that I don’t agree with — and a lot of coaches don’t agree with it — is that there is no way a 2,200 to 2,500 student population school should be playing against an 800 population school. It makes no sense,” Clifton said. “Competitive equity is not working. Give a small school a chance to win a state championship — just give a small school a chance.

“You don’t give a small school like us a chance by bumping them up two divisions. (Palo Alto) is one of the best teams that we have played all year, and it was in the first round against the 11-seed. And the team that beat us in sections (St. Patrick-St. Vincent) got bumped up to Division I and doesn’t even get a home game. So what is the point? What are we teaching our kids? The CIF has to do better than that. There is nothing competitive equity about that. It hurts the small public schools.”

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