Stronger Than Sisters: The singular bond that ties the Clovis West girls basketball team

The Clovis West girls basketball team not only plays a mean game of hoops, as evidenced by their No. 5 national ranking and 18-2 record, but are close friends off the court. (Photo by Nick Baker)

By Paul Meadors | Sports Editor

“Right there is my best friend.”

Five at a time they are a blur of maroon and gold, hustling like their hair’s on fire, busting 3s, diving for every loose ball no matter the score, outworking and outscoring. There is Bre playing some mean defense down low. In the corner, Meg is spotting up and … swish. Danae is running the show like a CEO who moonlights as a drill sergeant. Tess is scoring like she’s in the ABA. Sarah is whizzing the ball to teammates for easy layups, surprised she even saw them. Maddie is grabbing a rebound and nailing threes with ease. Champney and Liz? They can shoot it too. Makayla, Bri, Ari, Miciah and Ava are always encouraging, waiting to be called on like students who know all the answers. Ana is sprinting past opponents as if they’re in quicksand.

These are the girls of Clovis West.

They are a group of 14 strong who have spent years attending classes together, crying on each other’s shoulders, laughing (as only teenagers can) at nothing and everything, taking countless road trips to nowhere and everywhere, finishing each other’s sentences like twin sisters, and occasionally, breaking into impromptu dance parties in their cars. Off the court, they look like any other pack of high school BFFs. Except for one thing: These girls play a blitzing, cohesive, merciless and terrorizing brand of basketball and they play it better than most anybody in these United States.

These giggles-prone ballers from the West Side are riding a wave of epic proportions, high in the national rankings, setting up the nation’s elite and knocking them down. They are perhaps the greatest collection of basketball players ever assembled in California’s Central Section – five seniors are going Division I and one sophomore (Maddie Campbell, coach’s daughter) already has multiple offers. To put that into perspective, consider how rare it is for five players at any school to go D-I over the course of a decade. Five in a single class? On the floor at the same time? Clovis West is not a basketball squad. They are a team of traveling All-Stars.

To watch the Golden Eagles play is to bear witness to unselfish basketball as its finest; the extra pass, the help defense – five pistons firing with perfect timing to keep the engine humming. When they’re clicking it’s poetry in motion. And the shooting – my goodness, their shooting –  the skills are simply extraordinary. Head coach Craig Campbell calls this team “maybe the best shooting team I’ve ever seen.” He means boys or girls. Storied head coach Sue Phillips of Archbishop Mitty, who has won six CIF state titles in her 28 years, heaps praise on the girls’ shooting ability, “[They] shoot the 3-ball extremely well from all five positions and play hard with such great court chemistry.” Yep, all five positions, which means defenses have to pick their poison. Four girls have hit 30 or more threes on the season: Marquez (40), Anderson (36), Bates (32) and Campbell (31). They broke their own team school record with 18 threes in a Dec. 3 79-44 win over Carondelet-Concord, the state’s No. 9 ranked team at the time. They’re on pace to shatter the school record of 252 set last season. You will be hard-pressed to find a better shooting basketball team in America.

In Arizona, playing in the most prestigious girls’ basketball tournament in the land – the Nike Tournament of Champions – they beat the best team from Washington D.C. Then the best from Nevada. Then NorCal power St. Mary’s of Stockton. They were so much on fire they found themselves in the championship game, putting the country on notice and telling themselves they might as well win the whole darn thing. And guess what? They did. Dismantled three-time Florida state champion Miami Country Day by 22. Validation.

The Eagles’ first loss was in overtime by one point to San Jose’s Archbishop Mitty in Hawaii, a forgivable blemish as Mitty is USA Today’s No. 2 ranked team nationally. ESPN, USA Today and MaxPreps has Clovis West ranked No. 5 in the nation as of Jan. 22. Think about that: there are over 10,000 high school girls programs in the United States. Archbishop Mitty is No. 1 in the state, Clovis West No. 2 according to Cal-Hi Sports. Perhaps California’s best kept sports secret is a secret no more, and at a public school no less.

Yet, as wondrous as they are on the court, it’s their friendship off the court that makes them unique. Deadly assassins on the court, yes, but even more so this group of talented basketball players are a group as strong as sisters, and they are on a journey where the ending has yet to be written.

Five seniors have signed to play Division 1 basketball next season. From left are: Sarah Bates, Bre’yanna Sanders, Danae Marquez, Tess Amundsen and Megan Anderson. (Photo by Ron Webb)

A Culture of Cohesion and Community

There is something you have to understand about girls’ basketball and girls’ sports in general –   relationships come first. Guys will beat the living tar out of each other in practice, mainly because they want to be the man, kings for a day, two-on-two drills resembling gladiators battling to the death in a cagematch, to the victor will go the spoils. In a girls’ practice competition makes the whole team better, like iron sharpening iron. Sure, they’ll be some scraping and jostling but for the most part girls don’t want to be raised above or fall below their teammates. It’s about the belonging – that’s what’s most important.

Coach Campbell, the passionate and intense 44-year old who possesses a heart of gold (he’s extremely proud of the fact his players have over $2 million dollars in college scholarship money under his tutelage) understands this to a tee; there is so much more you can get from a team if you can get them to connect. On road trips he’ll choose their van and room assignments –  they’re not just with their close friends, they have to spend time with all their teammates. Imagine seniors sitting with underclassmen and the confidence this can instill in the psyche of a tentative freshman. In turn, when they celebrate on the court for a play well done, they’re celebrating each other. In fact, they never yell at each other during a game for making a mistake. Well, with one exception: they will get on each other for not taking shots, for being too unselfish. “Dude, don’t pass that to me, I’m not open.”

And how about that Clovis West team culture? The four current sophomores (Madison – coach Campbell’s daughter; Aari’yanna Sanders – Bre’s sister; Champney Pulliam; and Miciah Lee) all look up to the seniors and treat them with tremendous respect. When the Little Hoopster girls come watch the big girls play they stand in awe next to them after games, like puppies waiting for affirmation. When was the last time you saw an entire varsity team attend an 8th grade game? Well, last week, all 14 girls did, taking in a Kastner tilt. When junior Ava Emerzian had knee surgery on Jan. 17, the girls rallied behind her, squashing any insecurities that come with surgery with thoughts of love support and prayer.

The power of community at its finest, fostered years in the making.

Then and now : (left) A throwback picture in fourth grade of Bre’yanna Sanders, Danae Marquez and Megan Anderson. Together they starred in AAU through Kastner Intermediate and now onto Clovis West where they’re attempting to win four D-1 Valley championships in four years. (Picture to right) Those same three girls signed their National Letter of Intent. Sanders with Arizona State and Marquez and Anderson with San Jose State. (Photo contributed)

Building a Power

The foundation of this team was forged way back when a trio of fourth graders, Bre’yanna Sanders (Bre), Megan Anderson (Meg) and Danae Marquez (Nae Papi), starred on the same AAU basketball team together along with Liz Parker. Sanders and Anderson were the tall ones and both attended Valley Oak Elementary, Marquez went to Nelson Elementary and was the street-smart, savvy spitfire that defines her to this day. In fact, Campbell purposely put them on different teams in Little Hoopsters, knowing they’d dismantle the other teams if they played together. They continued to dominate at Kastner Intermediate School where they went 35-0 in their two years there. The  wins came easy to them: Pass it to Bre under the hoop for an easy bucket, give it to Megan and she’ll score no problem, Danae would dribble around opponents and generally cause havoc. Then it was time for Clovis West High School basketball – and the three played varsity as freshmen, quickly recognizing what it meant to play in such a demanding program under wizard/architect, Craig Campbell, the coach who had already won four Central Section Valley D-I championships in seven years since arriving in 2003 from Reno High (NV), where he developed a strong pedigree and nabbed a state championship.

A new piece of the puzzle was put into place when the versatile Sarah Bates joined the freshman class, her family relocating from Visalia. She could do a little bit of everything well; shoot, drive, dribble – fitting in nicely where needed. Sarah, Danae and Bre played a few minutes at a time their freshman year, sometimes none at all. Megan sat the bench while her older sister, Emily, a senior along with Portia Neal, led Clovis West to a Valley championship. Sarah had some trouble getting used to the intensity, Campbell pushing her in a way she hadn’t been pushed yet. “He wasn’t like ‘you’re amazing,’” she said. “He told me ‘You have to get better.’”

Players often take on the personality of their coach, and with Campbell’s team this is evident. In high school he held the credo “Hit your head ten times on the floor and I would have done it just because you told me it would make me better.” His Clovis West teams are tough as gravel and gristle, and they take criticism like every parent wishes their own kids would: eyes wide open, fully believing that it is coming from a good place. It’s well documented that Campbell runs a tight ship – the practices are focused; intense, with not a minute wasted. A mindset of nothing is given, everything is earned runs deep within this program.

The Clovis West girls are always good for a laugh and love some fun. Here, before a road trip to an away game, they gather for a Christmas gift exchange in the gym. (Photo contributed)

Campbell’s tough-minded coaching is fuelled in part by sour, unfulfilled memories from his own days at Reno High (‘90). His coaches never had open gym and never went the extra mile for their players. This bugged the heck out of him, so when as a University of Nevada-Reno basketball walk-on he coached a couple of junior high teams to perfect 8-0 records, the coaching seeds were planted. He told himself that when he had his own high school program he would do it his way. Excellence, effort, and going the extra mile would be the norm. But girls? How do you get girls to bang their head on the floor for their coach? 

Their freshman year on varsity the four girls had a tough time adjusting to the demands of the program. They often cried during and after practices because they were so grueling. They would even furtively gather during break at school to figure out ways to get out of practice (How can we roll our ankles? Can we fake being sick?). But they trudged on, thought better of their plans and soaked in everything the coaches were throwing their way, waiting for their time to thrive. They discovered that when the teacher buys in, it is so much easier for the students too.

Talent mixed with hard work generally yields fruit, and while this group is plenty talented, what makes them contenders instead of pretenders is their desire to work harder than their opponents: when five practices are scheduled one week they want six, if there’s a 7 a.m. practice another week, they start shooting at 6:30. It is now ingrained to the basketball culture at Clovis West. Coach Mark Howard, their eighth grade AAU coach, knew they could be something special when he saw them change from basketball players into certifiable gym rats.

Suddenly, the four were starting their sophomore year, wearing gray jerseys at practice (gray jerseys are earned by and granted to the top six players) and to Campbell’s surprise, they won the school’s third Valley title in a row. Last year they won it again, finishing with a 30-4 record and at a ranking of No. 15 nationally before ending their season with a home loss in the Open Division of state playoffs to Long Beach Poly.

Reflecting on their progress, Campbell concludes, “As sophomores they were good Valley kids, as juniors good state kids, and as seniors they’ve become good national kids.”

Tess Amundsen transferred in her junior year from Clovis North and sat out the entire season due to CIF regulations, knowing she only had her senior year to see the court. But no matter, she was the final missing piece to the equation, a 6-foot scorer and ferocious rebounder. She admits she struggled socially before she came to Clovis West but saying she fit right in when Bates and Marquez welcomed her. Gym rats recognize each other anywhere. The Final Five was complete, a class like no other.

Sarah Bates takes it to the rim in a recent game. Bates is a four-year starter and is signed to play at UCSB next year. (Photo by Nick Baker)

Curfews and Dutch Brothers

Fast forward to a day after Christmas and Meg, Bre and Danae are sitting in a semi-circle laughing to the point of tears, winking at each other, hands over mouth telling stories of the crazy adventures that eight years of playing together can bring, all brought on by the simple question: “So, what are some fun stories you can tell me?” (Note to self: be careful when asking a group of high school girls for a “few” stories) They went on for a half an hour straight and they could easily have gone on another two hours. Chatting with this group is like attending a family reunion with all of the memories being shared. That one time when they had to run sprints in the gym in the eighth grade, only to be busted by the librarian. Or that time as freshman when Campbell caught them getting ice in the hotel 10 minutes after curfew? And the lecture that followed that stunt, which entailed them being told they were immature and that they better grow up quick. Laughter everywhere. I was laughing too. Did I say that this was a team of traveling All-Stars? Go ahead and mix in the antics of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Another time, when they were in eighth grade at a Reno tournament, an official told Bre she couldn’t wear beads in her hair on the court. Her mom Tamara, frantically pulled every one of them out while sitting on the bench, a mere five minutes before tip-off. Coach Howard, then the girls eighth grade AAU coach (now a varsity assistant) used to call Danae “TO” because she turned the ball over too much, and then had to limit her to three questions every practice because she asked way too many. Most of the girls on this team have a fondness for, no, let’s call it an obsession, with Dutch Bros., the cult-like coffee joint where they love to bump hip-hop while in the drive-thru line. And yes, they love to dance; randomly in parking lots, in cars, when they hear that beat. In short, there’s no shortage of good-natured stories and shenanigans with these gals.

Social butterflies to be sure. If fact, they got busted for being too social before the very practice  these stories were told. Just how much caffeine are they putting in those coffees at Dutch Bros.?

Best Friends Forever

With all the good-natured fun, one could easily think it’s all fun and basketball games, but there’s another side to their story.

At the team’s annual retreat to Shaver Lake in November, the girls all sat in a circle facing each other in the living room of a large, decorated cabin, each clutching a leather bracelet and 14 identically colored beads. A fire was blazing in the fireplace. Basketballs were put away, cell phones left at home, no Twitter, no Instagram, no outside distractions. Aside from a few good-natured icebreakers and games, this was a serious time to share and reflect on goals.

But then something magic happened that turned a weekend retreat into something unexpected and powerful.

First, a player stood up holding a colored bead and handed that bead to a teammate, heaping praise on her with an outpouring of love. Each girls had their own color. Then another would follow. And another. And for the next two hours the Clovis West girls basketball team was a complete sob-fest, each girl clutching their colored beads like a treasure. They were close before, but these moments took their relationship to another level of depth. Marquez still has her leather bracelet, filled with multicolored beads, dangling from her backpack, each one symbolizing the breath of life spoken into her.

How many times in life do we not tell the people we love how we feel before it’s too late? If only I would have told them how I really felt at that vulnerable moment! Why is it that we recall so fondly those words that spoke to our own hearts when we were young? Words matter and the Clovis West girls went into the retreat wanting to become closer as a team, better teammates, set some goals, have some laughs. Yes, perhaps, but one thing is for certain: they came away with a bond as strong as sisters. 

Appreciating the Journey

T.S. Eliot said, “The journey, not the destination matters …” And oh what a journey it’s been. And every journey comes with roadblocks and obstacles. On Jan. 16, at the MLK Showcase in Stockton, the Eagles were whipped out of the gate by Centennial of Nevada and lost 70-46 – the same team they beat in at the Nike TOC by 15. They were humbled. Returning home two days later, they trailed for a large part of the game against league opponent Central, needing a steal and layup by Bre with 1:41 left in the game to lift the team to a 62-58 final. They looked tired, a spring lost in their step, and who can blame them – they have played arguably the toughest schedule in the nation, a grueling test of physical and mental strength. The girls say they can tell how long Campbell’s post game speech will be – 20 minutes if he sits up straight, 40 minutes if he crosses his legs. His legs were crossed after this one. No excuses, keep fighting. However, if you were to ask anyone around the program if they’d be happy with a 18-2 record on Jan. 22 their answer would be a reflexive, resounding yes.

Looking forward on March 3, the girls would love to hoist another Central Section title at Selland Arena. That would make four in four years for the seniors. Perhaps they’ll win a state championship, perhaps they won’t. But the joy is in the journey: the preparation and the times of triumph and heartbreak will be most remembered.

This time next year, the six seniors will be off to college: Sarah at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Tess braving the cold at Boise State, Bre at sunny Arizona State, and Meg and Danae both at San Jose State where they’ll be roomies. The latter already have a schedule for their music: maybe Hip-Hop for Danae on Tuesdays and Thursdays and country for Meg on Mondays and Wednesdays. Like siblings, they’ve learned to live with each other’s taste in music.

When their high school careers are over and the games are all played out, after college degrees are earned and the cheering crowds are diminished, and later in life with perhaps families of their own, whenever their hearts and minds return to the glory days Clovis West basketball, they’ll think of their journey together and say to themselves, “Those are my best friends.”