For anyone looking for friends or family in McFarland on Friday, just know they might not be home.
For a school known world-wide for its cross country team, Cougars girls basketball is playing in the program’s first CIF State Championship at 2 p.m. at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento against Oakland High in the Division III finals.
After a successful four-game homestand as the No. 1 seed in the Southern California D-III regional playoffs that concluded with a stunner over No. 6 Palisades — a Neli Diaz’ floater gave McFarland a 68-66 victory in the SoCal championships at home — the school administration has done something remarkable.
Because of the outpouring of support and the state championship falling Friday, McFarland has cancelled all classes and is turning the lights off on campus to allow faculty, staff and students the chance to be part of the movement north to cheer on the Cougars.
“A lot of our friends and families are employees of the district,” McFarland athletic director T.J. Yasenchak said. “We knew going in that a lot of people were going to want to go to the game. They wanted everyone to go up there and support this basketball team.”
The Cougars were sent off in a police escort through town Thursday morning that passed by the elementary schools in McFarland before hitting Highway 99.
As of Thursday, Yasenchak said there was at least four rooter buses reserved for anyone, not just those that work or go to school at McFarland, to jump on and be a be part this moment. That doesn't include the countless folks that will make the trek on their own.
“School is shutting down on Friday,” McFarland coach Johnny Samaniego said. “We are taking up as many as can go. We will make up that day. They deserve it. They have worked hard. This is a blessing.”
Samaniego knows a thing or two about winning state championships. He was on that first CIF State Cross Country championship — yes, that one in 1987 that spurred Disney to back up the Brinks truck for Kevin Costner to portray legendary coach Jim White in "McFarland U.S.A.” four years ago.
That was a lifetime ago for Samaniego and friends like David Diaz, who happens to be the father of the hero of the SoCal finals.
For two guys that found fame running through the almond orchards, it’s now all about the hardwood.
“It’s huge. We’ve all had dreams that we aspire for,” Samaniego said. “Coming from that ‘87 year and the state championship, that was huge the first year … Hopefully this will trigger future McFarland, and Kern County, to open up the gates and the doors for this to be normal and something we can do more often.”
The path for McFarland to a state championship game has been a long wait. The Cougars are the first girls basketball team from Kern County in 29 years to advance to the state championship since Rosamond lost the D-V finals in 1990. A year before that, Wasco lost in the D-IV title game. Since then, nothing.
And the Cougars have been gearing up for this moment since four seniors on the team were freshmen.
Diaz, Kathy Rodriguez, Julie Hernandez and Emily Gonzalez are all four-year varsity players that have won 106 games in their high school careers and lost just three times in 52 league games.
While this is, without a doubt, the greatest season in program history since the school was built in 1928, it has come with three very successful seasons prior.
“It’s not just this season, but what they did their junior year and their sophomore year that prepared them for what happened (Tuesday),” Samaniego said. “We talked about being relentless.”
Now comes the challenge of leaving the friendly confines of the campus gym and playing in one of the largest, and newest, arenas in the country. But this team has played in that type of environment.
Two years ago, McFarland got a chance to play at Staples Center in a non-league fundraiser against Delano. There, Diaz said she and the other players got a feel for an NBA-sized court.
“We were able to get the feel for the bigger and wider arena,” Diaz said. “We practice at BC and have found that we have a better interpretation of the court and how we are going to feel.”
Without fans there to support, the state championships can feel like playing in an empty, cavernous arena. But with 400 to 500 McFarland faithful expected to be in attendance Friday in Sacramento, it may just feel like a home game for the Cougars.
“For me, the crowd really helps us and gets us going,” Hernandez said. “I really love the support we are getting from our community and family and friends.”