By Josh Hunsucker (@jphunsucker)
Eleven years ago I watched one of my sister’s best friends walk off the basketball court for the last time. Heartbroken, Brittany Boswell, the ’04-’05 DFAL MVP couldn’t hold back tears after a hard fought 63-54 loss to St. Mary’s of Stockton in the Division III NorCal Finals. Brittany paced the Mats with 15 points but the USC bound and future Minnesota Lynx guard Jacki Gemelos would not be denied. The junior poured in a game high 24 points and the Rams moved onto the State Championship game where they ultimately fell to Bishop Amat 56-53.
Driving home I thought this would likely be one of the last Miramonte girls hoops games I would ever attend or likely care about. My high school life was disproportionally inundated with girls basketball. My sports summers were spent locally playing passing league at DVC, hooping in the Oakland Neighborhood League and the Jewish Community Center in Rossmour, and running up the legendary hill behind Paul Yriberri field. My sister’s sports summers, on the other hand, consisted of traveling up and down California, Las Vegas, Branson, and Orlando as a member of the East Bay Xplosion.
For those who don’t know about AAU basketball, the early ‘00s Eastbay Xplosion was a murders row of talent. For starters, the Paris Twins, Courtney and Ashley, offspring of former 49ers tackle Bubba Paris, anchored the team. Both went on to play at Oklahoma, where Courtney took home NCAA Player of the Year her sophomore year and was the first four-time All-American in college basketball history. She currently plays for the Tulsa Shock. The list goes on, Megan Niedermeyer (UC San Diego), Golden Bears Ashley Walker, Alexis Gray-Lawson, Devenei Hampton, and Shantrell Sneed, Matador and Colorado State Ram Molly Molly Nohr, and Jenae Morris another Tulsa Shock player. The top talent from the Bay Area was on this team as well as two local products, my sister Sarah and Brittany. I had to drive my sister to local games on weekends but the fringe benefit was I got to travel to Orlando each summer. All I had to do was watch the games and have fun at Disney World, tough life.
After years of watching Xplosion hoops and seeing more future Mats join the squad, I developed a connection and personal rooting interest with the Lady Mats, aside from my general love of basketball. I was there when in 2004 when my sister’s team was upset early in the NCS playoffs her senior season. I was there in 2002 when the team led by Tori Markey won NorCal at UC Davis then nearly pulled an incredible comeback victory in the State Finals before falling short to Bishop Montgomery 60-55. I stayed connected through Britany’s season because she was the last bastion of that Eastbay Xplosion/Miramonte crew that I watched for so many years. So when Brittany walked off the floor for the final time as a Mat, I thought my era of Miramonte girls basketball was over.
When I got back to my apartment, my then girlfriend (current wife) asked me who won. As I told her, a vicious smile creeped across her face. “Never had a doubt,” she said. And there it began, my second act in following Lady Mats hoops. My wife is a Stocktonian, born and raised, not to mention a St. Mary’s alum. She is obnoxiously a Ram and has the stats to back it up. She owns the school record pole vault (allegedly still stands) and key member of the 2001 Volleyball team that lost by two in game five of the State Championship. So when she started to run her mouth after the Mats lost I only wanted Miramonte to beat the Rams.
Over the next ten years, both programs would become perennial powers in their respective CIF sections. The Mats have won the DFAL seven times and taken home the North Coast section title four times in the last ten years. Not to mention being ranked 47, 23, and 7th in the nation over the course of the last three years. The Rams have been even more dominant, their Max Preps page reads like the rafters of the Boston Garden, only the three straight State Championships are mentioned in their achievements. A three-peat run from 2009-2011 that saw the Rams beat SoCal powerhouses Inglewood 71-62, Bishop Amat 89-41 in a dish served cold drubbing, and Rialto 64-48. A little digging shows the Rams won the Tri City League each of the last ten years, eight section titles, four NorCal titles, and were nationally ranked eight times.
From sporting green and white unis to generally being disliked by all other local high schools for being the “rich white kids,” both programs oddly have a lot in common. St. Mary’s is a private school and Miramonte is a public school’s best impression of a private school. Both started as smaller Division III schools and built their way. Both schools built their programs on player continuity on AAU teams, which pipelined talent into the programs. The Stockton Mavericks are basically the East Bay Xplosion equivalency for the Central Valley (although the Xplosion did poach the aforementioned Jackie Gemelos for a few summers). Both programs have also had strong leadership at the coaching position. Miramonte was led by legendary Coach Darrell Hirashima Sr. and is currently having great success under Kelly Sopak. In Stockton, Tom Gonsalves had been at the helm for over a decade and has turned the small Catholic school into a national power.
Watching both programs grow and compete yearly in the state playoff race has been eerily similar to the 49ers-Packers rivalry of the mid-90s. The teams have played each other five out of the last ten years in the state playoffs with the Rams having a Green Bay-esque 4-1 edge. The first two tilts in 2008 and 2010 were lopsided 19 and 22-point wins for St. Mary’s. However, the recent clashes have been epic. The Mats and Rams have played in the last three state playoffs with the Rams and Mats exchanging wins int eh NorCal quarters in 2013 and 2014.
This year’s tilt saw two top-ten nationally ranked teams square off for a place in the State Title Game at Cal. Once again the 3rd ranked Rams outpaced the Mats early and weathered a third quarter Mats run to head “down state” winning 67-52. For the Rams, it was business as usual as they are 36 minutes away from their school’s fourth state title. For the Mats, it was another biter defeat at the hands of their state playoff nemesis with only the hope of next year to look to for comfort. As for me, I’ll begrudging be rooting for the Rams this Saturday because if there is anything worse than losing to your rival its losing to SoCal.