Sara James would otherwise be there person, if she didn't have other
With her college home-to-be aiming for its third straight Final Four berth, the talented shooting guard is out for a state championship. Her Oak Ridge High School girls team – the pony-tailed pride of El Dorado Hills, a high-end suburban enclave located about a half-hour drive east of Sacramento – faces Long Beach Poly for tonight's CIF Div. I Championship in Bakersfield. Arco had been the state title games' site each of the previous 12 years, until the NCAA's arrival for 2010 brought a one-year hiatus.
"I mean come on, the one year (Stanford) comes up here, I have to be somewhere else," James joked.
The break in routine offers a contrast to James, a steward of established habits. No pregame is complete without a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She's proud of wearing the same Nike Hyperize sneakers since her senior season began. "I'm really going to miss those shoes. They're the best." Thirty-four games have unfortunately put their rubber odometer to the breaking point.
And if there's anything else to be expected of James, it's outstanding efforts in the most important of situations. A player longtime Oak Ridge head coach Steve White calls "the hardest working player I've ever had" has been the best player on one of the Sacramento region's most consistent high school girls programs. The Trojans have won 89 percent (119 wins against just 15 losses) of their games since James began her freshman season on varsity.
"She's got it all," White said. "She's a natural gym rat. She lives and loves to compete."
James is a slender but muscular 5-foot-10, a natural gunner with the passing and driving skills of a point guard. She emerged as a highly sought-after recruit, drawing comparisons to former Sacramento High star Vicky Baugh, now a junior at Tennessee.
She'll enroll in summer school at Stanford in June, living in the dorms while practicing and conditioning with other freshmen. James hopes her slight build doesn't discourage Stanford from using her at her natural position, though she aims to further add versatility to her skill-set.
"I'm a two-guard," she said. "On the other hand I'll become more of a point guard if I have too. I'd consider my game a mixture of the two positions. I love to shoot, and I love to pass. Driving inside, is, I guess you could say my specialty."
Some skeptics do exist.
"The way she's built, I think she'll have to become more of a point guard at the next level," said Mark Tennis, editor of Cal-Hi Sports magazine.
Her talent is undeniable. When Oak Ridge fell way behind early in the 2007 state quarterfinals at San Jose powerhouse Mitty, a team-high 21 points from the Trojans' undaunted freshman nearly brought the visitors all the way back. She then averaged 23 points per-game in the postseason as a sophomore. A trip to the Northern California finals was on the line two weeks ago when James – as she likes it best – drove the lane in the waning seconds of a tie game against Deer Valley of Antioch.
Her scoop shot with 4.2 seconds to play found the bottom of the net, and James and her seven fellow seniors weren't yet done with their high school careers. The hometown Arco Arena crowd witnessed the team's 10-point victory over Berkeley High in last weekend's NorCal final, when James overcame both a sore shoulder and six first-half turnovers.
The postseason saga's continuation has allowed for a James family reunion on the Oak Ridge practice court this past week. Oldest brother Kevin, due to graduate this spring from UC Davis, was a member of the Trojan boys' 2005 state title team. Middle brother Ryan – now the basketball team manager for UCLA – came home for spring break. Enter the enterprising Oak Ridge coaching staff, who enlisted the pair as practice fodder in the girls' preparation for the state title.
"It's all in the name of facing the most athletic competition possible," James explained. "But most of all it's been fun. We've all been home of course over the last couple years, just not all at the same time together."
May James' timing – as in cutting down championship nets while Stanford does battle at Arco – keep getting better.
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