East Union coach Jim Agostini held both fists over his head as the final buzzer sounded and waited for his MVP to cross midcourt before they embraced.
Led by Taylor Snaer and their longtime coach, these Lancers did it again.
In a winner-take-all, regular-season finale Tuesday at Dalben Center, it was East Union that had the composure to make clutch plays down the stretch and topple Kimball 50-44 for its third consecutive Valley Oak League championship.
Snaer scored 10 of her game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter and finished with four rebounds, three assists and three steals. Donnese Payne contributed 13 points and 17 rebounds. Nylah Dyson also scored 13 points for the Lancers (9-1, 22-5 overall).
Kimball (8-2, 22-4) was paced by Marianthe Tsirelas’ 13 points, five rebounds and four steals. Emma Coronado and Sierra Tuliau added 12 and 11 points, respectively.
While every championship is special to Snaer, she could not deny that this one hits a little different.
“New team, there’s one returner (who starts) and I knew I would have to lead the team,” Snaer said. “They took it well. They wanted it as bad as I did. They’re just hard workers. They’re amazing.”
For Agostini, who has won eight VOL titles in 15 years (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2021 season) as East Union’s coach, this was an especially gratifying achievement. He was on medical leave to start this season and missed the first seven games, and his return did not last long after coming down with an illness that knocked him out until the start of league play.
Meanwhile, Snaer took charge as a leader on a team that starts two freshmen. East Union had high hopes of three-peating, but former league MVP Lani Tu’uga transferred to another school.
“It has been a challenging year,” Agostini said. “This team, the coaching staff, fought through some adversity, especially early in the year. My assistant coaches, Rick Marsh and Travis Gosney, just did a phenomenal job of getting this team prepared. We had some tight games early to get us prepared for something like this, and the girls just took it on from there.”
“They had to deal with hearing about losing a teammate. This team really earned their stripes the hard way. They did it with dirty, hard work. They did on defense.”
The Lancers started the game on a 7-0 run and held Kimball to just two points in the opening period. The Jaguars, however, were able to keep Snaer in check for much of the first half and took their largest lead of the game at five, 36-31, with Ella Gregory’s mid-lane runner 36 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Snaer came to the rescue, scoring nine of her team’s first 11 points in the final period. Included were a 3-pointer and a conventional 3-point play from the VOL’s reigning MVP.
“She wears a lot of capes,” Agostini said. “She’s a huge part of this championship team. We ask her to take care of ball handling, we ask her to score, we ask her to play defense on whoever we think we have to stop each night. She has taken that load and hasn’t blinked an eye. Obviously, she’s a special player.”
East Union went on a 10-0 run capped by Mariela Navarro’s layup off a nice feed by Ava Barrera from the right corner. The Lancers led 44-38 while holding Kimball scoreless for nearly 4 minutes.
“Instead of being like a senior ball club that controls the ball, we came down and took three bad shots, didn’t play defensively and let them back in the game,” Kimball coach Michael Turpin said. “They were struggling. I thought we had a chance to win. I just have a lot of girls (who lack) basketball IQ. They haven’t played much in games like this.”
While Snaer ignited East Union’s fourth-quarter surge, Dyson drained a late 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 47-40, and Payne helped put it away with two free throws with a minute left.
It was Snaer who fittingly iced it with a free throw in the final seconds, but she was quick to praise her teammates after the game.
“They went to a zone (defense), and obviously you’re not going to beat a zone by yourself,” she said. “I knew I had to use my teammates, and they stepped up for the job. I just knew they were up for it. They were ready for this level, so I knew I could trust them. I’m going to trust them through it all.”
East Union now awaits its placement for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, which begin Feb. 16.
East Union 49, Kimball 21
The Lancers rode the hot hand of Bellah Crabb, who amassed 27 points while knocking down four 3s.
Tied after the first quarter, East Union outscored the Jaguars 11-1 in the second and 15-4 in the third to break away.
Caliyah Lopez contributed with 12 points, and M.J. Simon had seven.