From the outside the Yosemite High girls' basketball program (17-10, 7-3 NSL) looks pretty much the same. Another successful year as the Lady Badgers made it to the CIF Central Section D-II playoffs for the 12th consecutive year.
Due to their past success, Yosemite, with an enrollment of about 720, is competing in D-II against schools that have student populations of more than 2,000. But that's another story.
Despite this, coach Gary Blate's teams keep on winning. The Badgers, seeded No. 5 went on the road and dominated No. 4 seed Ridgeview of Bakersfield 46-24 Feb. 28.
On Feb. 5 they faced always tough Garces High of Bakersfield (30-3, 10-0), the No. 1 D-II seed in the Central Section and ranked No. 20 in the state for D-II by Maxpreps.com. The Badgers fell behind in the first quarter and could never catch the talented Garces team, losing 60-37. Garces went on to win the D-II section championship last Friday night, beating Tulare Western, 49-31.
What didn't happen this season was a league title. This season, Sierra High took home the girls North Sequoia League title, denying Yosemite its 12th consecutive NSL title (outright or shared). It wasn't a fluke. Although the Badgers beat Sierra once in a pre-league tournament game, the Chieftains (24-4, 10-0 NSL) defeated YHS twice in league play This season Sierra was a better team. They earned a No. 2 seed in the CIF D-III playoffs and won the section title at Selland Arena last Saturday, beating top-seeded Selma 47-41.
Coach Cathy Lauritzen's program is to be congratulated.
It was the first time since the 2002/2003 season that Blate's program did not win or share a league title. The 11 year run isn't a YHS record. Ellen Peterson owns a 23-year league title run in girls cross country.
Blate's run included four straight CIF titles and also three CIF runners-up finishes. A Southern California Regionals appearance at the LA Sports Arena in 2006 against eventual State Champion Bishop Amat remains the highlight of the program. The coach has created an elite program that continues to produce quality players.
Blate has prepared a number of players who went on to play in junior college or at a four year school. One of these, Katie Menton, could rightfully be considered the greatest basketball player in YHS history, boys or girls. She was on the team that won the four straight CIF titles.
Another former Badger, Sydnee Fipps, is climbing past the all-time scoring leaders at D-I UC Davis as a junior and will likely be mentioned at the same level as Menton.
Other notable Yosemite players that have gone on to play college ball include Jenay Herring and Sienna Gonzales (Fresno Pacific University), Jodie McMillen, Lauren Rolff, and Karras Blate (Reedley College - Blate went on to Hawaii Pacific), Emily Richie, Sonya Eggleston, and Ashley Stearns (Fresno City College), Dahlia Lopez (Reedley College), Valerie Gee (Cuesta College then to Northern Montana), Tricia O'Neill and Ashley Nichols (Merced College), and Dori Blackstock (College of Sequoias).
How Blate does all this is almost taken for granted. Blate has his own successful law practice. That alone is difficult and time consuming. From work, it's straight to the gym. Blate has also pretty much single handedly run the youth basketball program since 1992.
It's a family affair for the Blates. Oldest son Mac played point guard on the 1999 league championship team when Blate was the boys coach. When he switched to the girls, he turned around a program which won one game the previous season and started the 11-year streak of championships. His daughter Karras was the league MVP on the first three of his teams and probably deserves as much credit for creating the winning atmosphere.
Blate's wife Lori keeps score at games and continuously hosts current and former players at the Blate home. Youngest son Luke was the boys leading scorer last season and now plays soccer in college.
Basketball is a labor of love for the Blates. Gary Blate is a basketball junkie. He bleeds Bruin baby blue. A UCLA grad, Blate was blessed to be at the school during the glory years of John Wooden.
"I started out at UCLA when Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) was a senior," Blate said. "After I came back from the Army, I was there during the Bill Walton years. I played pickup games with Greg Lee (Bill Walton's point guard) and UCLA greats and NBA players Henry Bibby, Marques Johnson and Richard Washington. It was an incredible experience."
Yosemite had some key injuries this year but have a strong nucleus for next season's campaign. I have no doubt that Blate and the Lady Badgers will be back on top of the NSL next year.