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Cu-Nisha Mitchell scores in her final game at Memorial.

No matter the scoreboard read 79-41 in a win for the San Joaquin Memorial Panthers on Feb. 5 and the home crowd cheered the Fresno private school team like they had accomplished something like a playoff victory.

Nope. None of that.

What mattered took place in a little locker room off the aging Fresno Catholic school’s gymnasium. There, Sanger’s Lady Apaches ended their season with their teammates and coaches sharing encouraging words of hope, grit and accomplishment. And, certainly, some tears.

“We left it on the court,” said coach David Campbell. “We gave 100 percent effort, and we wanted to give them a run for their money. We knew we could keep up with them. We didn’t let up.”

Nor did the Panthers, a very athletic team used to dominating their competitors this season with their height and skill.

But the Apaches and especially this year’s seniors — Cu-Nisha Mitchell, Annie Lopez and twins Marissa and Alyssa Hansen — didn’t let that curtail their competitive fire.

“I’m a little emotional right now,” Lopez said, wiping away a stray tear. “We came out strong, and we showed we could keep up. I knew we’d end up with a banger.”

Despite the lopsided final score, the Apaches clawed back into the game at every opportunity with a Mitchell layup, a Lopez three or that Hansen smothering defense. And that wasn’t accounting for the press of Taylor Roth, Kelly Anderson, Midori Fishel, Andrea Chapa, Mia Castro, Elise LeBeau, Ana Delfin and Mallory Scott — the platform of next year’s team.

“This is probably our last game,” Mitchell said. “So it’s my last game forever in high school. I almost got fouled out.”

The revelation of fouling out caused her to grin. “I just wanted to shoot one three. But the (Memorial) girls denied me.”

And to her teammates, she said, “I’m so blessed to have played with you guys. I know you are going to go places.”

Lopez then said, “We came up short. But it’s OK. Just work hard and never give up.”

At that point, Delfin gathered them all together and initiated a group hug. Maybe it was Delfin and somebody else. Hard to say. There were few dry eyes.

The Hansens at one point in the game when Campbell called a time out performed a complex handshake that appeared like something they did to emphasize the never-give-up attitude espoused by Lopez. Marissa explained it simply. “It’s our family handshake,” she said.

“It’s for good luck,” Alyssa said.

Asked about their frame of mind, their thoughts or whatever, Alyssa was first to respond. Her face and that of her sister’s was a bit red either from the game or its postmortem. “I want some Dutch,” she said, specifying a drink from the drive-in coffee place loved by many in the Sanger sports contingent. 

Her choice proved distinctive. “Dinosaur egg,” she said.

“Makes it more icy,” Marissa added. Then she said of her teammates, “They’re not just my friends. They’re my sisters. They’ll always be my sisters.”

The four seniors have been playing together since the fourth grade, making the final game of the season especially bittersweet.

Also leaving was assistant coach Mike Leas, who said he’s headed to Caruthers to coach, adding to his 19 years helping student athletes accomplish their goals. “I’m proud of you,” he said. “You kept playing no matter what.” And he called this past season one his most rewarding.

Assistant Sam Zavala conversely wrapped up her first as a coach. “I wouldn’t trade you for anybody else,” she said. “For you seniors especially. Every single team you played, you never laid down. In the real world, you need to keep grinding like you do in games.”

Campbell said the team appeared to “put all of the pieces together” later in the season and play like he knew they could. He said it made him happy and sad at the same time — happy that his Apaches figured out how to mesh on the court and sad that there wasn’t more opportunity to show other teams what they’d accomplished.

“We say, ‘Always with pride,’” he told his team. “You showed that today. If you’re going to go out, go out on your own terms.”

And they did, at least that night. Some spoke with Memorial players on their way out. Others mingled with family. The tears they left behind. Old news.

 The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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