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The Hillgals’ finest day

20 years ago, Placer pulled off a huge upset for its lone state hoops crown
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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It was Auburn’s version of “Hoosiers.” Complete with a star forward, an untimely injury, an undersized guard coming up big in the clutch and coaches decked out in matching green blazers, Placer High’s 1990 girls basketball enjoyed an incredible journey. It ended with the little team from the Sierra Foothills pulling off a monumental upset, not to mention the school’s only official CIF State Championship in any team sport. A championship at any level is special, but the matter in which Placer pulled off its 54-43 victory over Brea Olinda in the Division III championship game was something along the lines of an epic movie script. The Hillgals had finished a miserable 2-23 in 1988 before the arrival of coach Jim Mallery and assistant Don Meads. Christa Gannon arrived at the Auburn campus in the fall of ‘88 like a gift from the basketball gods. Placer lost in the Northern California final in ‘89 before marching all the way to the state championship game in ‘90. Standing in the Hillgals’ way was a supremely talented Brea Olinda team ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 4 nationally by USA Today. The upset The Lady Cats from Brea were expected to cruise to the state crown. They had won 55 straight games before the title bout at the Oakland Coliseum and hadn’t lost to a team from California in more than three years. Earlier that season, Brea Olinda had beaten Morningside Prep and all-American Lisa Leslie, who went on to WNBA stardom. Early on in the title game, it looked like the Hillgals had met their match. Brea Olinda’s star guards Tammy Blackburn and Aimee McDaniel looked too fast and too sharp for Placer to handle. But Placer fought back and trailed 29-25 at the half. After three quarters it was 36-33. Midway through the final frame the Hillgals made their move, but not without one last dramatic twist. Senior guard Carla Souza crashed into a Brea player and went down in a heap. She was forced to watch the final four minutes of the game from the bench. “My persona was to finish that game, but I was stuck on the bench. It was hard for me,” Souza said last week from her home in Florida. “They wanted me to leave the gym and I wouldn’t go. That was difficult.” With their starting point guard on the bench in tears, the Hillgals rattled off an inspired 8-0 run to take the lead and all but put away the Lady Cats. They outscored Brea Olinda 17-5 to close the game. Gannon dominated in the paint, Caree Anderson drilled key free throws down the stretch and the Placer players went wild at the buzzer. Anderson turned in an incredible performance. The 5-6 guard finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and five steals. Gannon was exceptional in her final game as a Hillgal, scoring 22 and grabbing 16 rebounds – seven of which came on the offensive end. Senior forward Trina Haddock dished out a team-high seven assists and Kelly Dean chipped in with six points. A celebration that lived on The Placer girls won the state championship on St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. The green and gold celebrated for several weeks in the Auburn area. “That’s all we talked about for weeks and months after that,” Souza said. “It was a huge deal for the town. The town and the area just encompassed us and we really felt special.” Gannon said she doesn’t remember a lot about the game’s second half when Placer made its go-ahead surge. But the scene following the game was truly memorable. “What I remember most is the drive home,” Gannon said. “We were in the bus and there were fans lining the overpasses cheering for us. When we got back to the school there was a big sign there that said, “55-1.” Many players credited the Placer faithful for inspiring them to victory. The Hillgals took hundreds of fans to Oakland for the game, which began Saturday morning. “We had such a great fan base and that really helped us,” Anderson said. “They gave us a great adrenaline rush for the second half.” Auburn has been known to rally around its athletic heroes. The Auburn team that made the Little League World Series in 1959 was greeted with a parade and a crowd of hundreds in the streets of downtown. “The thing about the Placer fans and parents is they really believed in us,” said Gannon, who transferred to Placer from Crescent Valley in Corvallis, Ore. prior to her junior year. “I loved that about Auburn – when people got on your team, they were on your team all the way. Nobody else really believed in us. I don’t think Brea took us seriously.” Hillgals, coaches move on, but never forget Placer’s graduation in 1990 sent the most talented group of girls basketball players their separate ways. Three went on to success at the college level and the rest live with the glorious memories of their final game in a green and gold uniform. Anderson wasn’t considered a major prospect prior to her senior year, but her gutsy play all year earned her a basketball scholarship to Sacramento State. She had an excellent career with the Hornets, overcoming a torn ACL early in her senior year and coming back strong after she was granted a medical redshirt. “It was a great experience – I’d love to do it again,” said Anderson, who now lives in Sacramento. “It was tough to have an injury my senior year and have to stay back, but I had a lot of fun playing for coach (Sue) Huffman.” Anderson now works part-time for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department while raising her three children. Souza played four seasons at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay). The 5-10 guard earned a degree in Kinesiology and nutrition, but wound up in a different field after graduation. She got a job in information technology with GTE, which later became Verizon. She now lives in Florida. Gannon went on to add some remarkable achievements to her resume, though the state title run at Placer remains a highlight. She earned a full-ride scholarship to UC Santa Barbara, where she remains one of the school’s most decorated student-athletes. As a sophomore, she hit a pair of free throws to send the Gauchos to the NCAA Tournament. The 6-1 forward was a two-time NCAA Academic All-American and in 1994 she won the Walter Byers Award as the NCAA’s top scholar athlete. Gannon went on to law school, but her career took an interesting turn when she finished at Stanford. “When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a district attorney,” Gannon said. “I went to law school and I volunteered at a juvenile hall. In talking with the kids there they kept saying, ‘If I only had this or that I wouldn’t be in this situation.’ I wanted to do something to prevent those cases.” Her experience led to the founding of FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), a San Jose-based nonprofit that aims to pull teenagers and young adults out of the downward spiral of crime and drug addiction. “Education, mentoring and giving back to the community – those are the three tenants of FLY,” she said. “We’ve grown from a staff of one to a staff of 23. A lot of the lessons I learned in sports are really at the crux of the organization. We’re working with the underdogs and I love to be a part of that.” Mallery, who worked as an investigator for Placer County, coached four more seasons at Placer before retiring. Meads, who was in the insurance business, coached three more years. Meads admitted he was responsible for the green blazers the coaches wore on the Placer sidelines. “I thought, the girls dressed up on game days — they all wore dresses — so I got the blazers for us to wear,” he said. Meads said he saw several players from the title team when they were in college, but doesn’t see them much anymore. “They’ve all scattered,” Meads said. “That was just a great team. They all got along. We changed the defense from a 2-3 to a 3-2 (zone) and I think that’s what did it. We never expected to go to the state title game, but the team gelled and they were very unselfish. It was a great ride.”