A season that was packed full of program-firsts and school records wrapped up with another first for the Del Norte girls basketball team when Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League White Star awards were announced this week. Standout senior Kaleya Sanchez became the first Warrior to be named the Big 5’s Most Valuable Player — she was a unanimous selection by the league’s coaches.
“Every single coach wanted her (as the MVP). I kind of figured that is how it was going to be, but the way they do the voting you don’t know,” said Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton. “It is pretty awesome to have the unanimous MVP, to go 8-0 (in the Big 5 regular season), win the Niclai, and make it all the way to the section championship where they played a private school and they competed. They showed that they deserved to be there, and the NCS got it right with the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 seed. It is unfortunate the way that they do the seedings for state, but we don’t control that. The bottom line is that we got a home game in the state tournament, and they went out there and competed.”
Sanchez has been a starter on the varsity team for all four years of high school, as she amassed a school record 1,475 points throughout her high school career eclipsing the previous record held by current junior varsity coach Lauren Lesina, who unofficially finished her Del Norte career with 1,308 points. Sanchez was particularly effective in her final year on the team as she poured in 552 points throughout the year for an average of 19.7 points per game.
“This year we transitioned her from playing small forward to more of a power forward-center,” Clifton said. “She was a little worried about that transition, but we made the switch and she excelled at it right off the bat. She was a little sloppy with her shot early on after not playing for three or four months, but when she got her legs, her shot and her touch down she really started picking it up.
“As the competition got tougher, Kaleya averaged more points. For her to score 35 points against South Medford I want to say is probably one of her two best games of her career, because the girl she was playing against signed to play Division I basketball in college. It was pretty obvious that Kaleya was the best player on the court in that game. Then to score 32 points against Palo Alto (in the state tournament) when she was surrounded by wide and tall redwoods down low.”
Sanchez’ 35 points against South Medford was her season high, but the senior was also red-hot throughout the postseason. In seven games between the Nicali, North Coast Section, and CIF State tournaments, Sanchez put up 179 points for a 25.6 point-per-game average.
She was also one of the Warriors most dependable players on defense, frequently matching up against the opponents’ top scoring threat regardless of the position they played.
“The good thing about Kaleya is her attitude is phenomenal,” Clifton said. “If you ask her to guard the point guard she will guard the point guard. If you ask her to guard the center she will guard the center. She looks at it as a challenge, and that is a great asset for her to have as she moves on. She has so much heart, and you can’t teach heart.”
Sanchez was also the Big 5’s MVP in volleyball this fall. The standout senior athlete said she believes her mentality while competing has helped to push her into the top tier of players in the league in both sports.
“I am pretty competitive. I like to get stuff done. I go hard for every ball because every ball counts,” Sanchez said. “I think that set me apart from most because some girls get mad at themselves and then can’t function for the rest of the game. I used to be like that, but since I have gotten older I have matured and I can shake it off. That has really helped me a lot this year. I think that has made me both a better player, and a better person. There were some other girls that maybe could have gotten it, but I am pretty stoked that I got it. It is pretty cool.”
To her teammates, Sanchez’s true value goes beyond simply how hard or how effectively she plays.
“The way that she plays is insane — of course — but it’s just her whole personality,” said sophomore guard Bella Stone. “She is just a good person. Practices are super fun. Between her, Kirsten (Brous) and Shelby (Horner) everyone is laughing the whole time — she is just fun to be around.”
In addition to her MVP award, Sanchez was also one of three Warriors to receive white stars this season along with the sophomore guard duo of Stone and Jadence Clifton.
“You have the best point guard in the league and the best shooting guard in the league, and saying that as sophomores,” Justin Clifton said. “I thought they did a phenomenal job this year. They both still have a lot to learn, and we are going to get there together as a team.”
Although Stone and Clifton are both different types of players than Sanchez, the Big 5 MVP said she sees a lot of the same characteristics that have helped her excel in her fellow white star recipients.
“They go hard for every ball as well, and that really sets them apart from kids their age,” Sanchez said. “For them to be that good and that young, you also have to be humble. I feel like they are both pretty humble. When you are humble, you play for your team, and you do things right that makes you a better player and a better person outside of sports too.”
The sophomore guards have been playing together for a long time already, starting with AAU basketball and sharing the backcourt at Crescent Elk. Stone and Clifton were also both selected to play for the varsity as freshmen last year.
“We have been playing together since we were about 10,” Stone said. “It’s an honor to play with your best friend.”
“I’ve gotten to play with her for six straight years now, starting and working together,” Jadence Clifton added.
“We play against each other, and go one-on-one,” Stone chimed back in.
“We make each other better,” Clifton said.
While Stone and Clifton are each strong players individually, the guard tandem feels like they are even more dangerous as a unit.
“I feel like I know where she is at all the time,” Stone said. “We find each other well.”
In addition to the three white stars, Del Norte’s Brous, Selena Ledezma, Aleesha Lenover, and Maykala Jackson all received honorable mention.
Clifton, Stone, Lenover and Jackson were all also awarded the scholar athlete distinction by the NCS for maintaining a grade point average of 3.5 or above throughout the season.
Justin Clifton said the girls will always remember this season. But after all the awards and records garnered, both as individuals and as a team, Sanchez said she expects the bonds created throughout the year to have the most lasting impact.
“I’m going to have a lot of memories,” Sanchez said. “I’ve gotten closer to all of these girls — I’ve even gotten closer to my sister, Kirsten Brous, and my cousin, Bella Stone. I have a special relationship with everyone on this team and that has also helped make us a better team. It is cool that in my senior year we set all these records and changed history for Del Norte County. But I think what I am going to miss the most is just traveling with my teammates, because they are so funny. Almost every car ride one of us would almost pee our pants because we were laughing so hard — it was just fun. Even though we had girls quit on us or leave us, it made us stronger as a team. I am going to miss that strong bond.”
The Warriors will head into next season without Sanchez, who said she is still considering her college options but is leaning towards playing junior college volleyball with the goal of eventually moving on to a Division I university.
“You can’t replace a player like that, but you can use four or five girls to get there,” Justin Clifton said. “I think we are going to be just fine next year, but it is definitely going to be different without Kaleya on the court.”
The Warriors will also lose Horner to graduation, but the rest of the roster will be back, including a particularly large and talented sophomore class that will be juniors for the 2019-20 season.
“You can’t get better unless you get in the gym, in the weight room, and on the track,” Clifton said. “The girls are going to keep playing basketball and keep doing what they do. Nothing is mandatory at all, but it is one of those things where it doesn’t have to be mandatory because these girls want to play.”
Sanchez also believes the returning players will find a way to continue to improve as a team after she graduates this spring.
“I was a big part of it this year, but they are the type of girls who — when it is a hard situation — they play harder,” Sanchez said. “So they will be fine without me and without anyone else who contributed because they are all fighters.”
Reach Michael Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .