By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
AZUSA.–Kayla Sato is quite the effective communicator.
There was no mistaking her attitude nor emotions at Azusa Pacific University on Saturday, where her West Torrance High School team was playing for the CIF Southern Section Div. 2A championship.
She marched onto the court with a solemn focus, barely looking away to the crowd.
During the game, she was an archetype of the driven warrior, refusing to yield to a balanced, potent opposition from El Dorado High.
And after her team had secured the title, it was Sato’s screams that echoed most prominently through the cavernous APU gymnasium.
In the hallway leading from the locker room, Sato barked when asked what the evening’s supper of champions would be.
“What are you talking about, dinner? We’re celebrating a CIF championship,” she shouted full-throat. “It’s all about right now, living in this moment!”
Sato scored a game-high 23 points, including two free throws she sank with the calm steadiness of a vicar on Easter Sunday with her team holding a slim lead with just over a minute to play, in West’s 65-52 win. It’s the first girls’ CIF title for West in school history.
For Sato, the pressure of a championship game notwithstanding, preparation prevented perspiration.
“It’s practice,” she said without hesitation. “We do it every day until it becomes natural.”
In a game littered with fouls – at least 40 were called – Sato and center Kylie Fujioka kept to the script that led West here in the first place as the No. 1 seed in the division. Fujioka scored 19 in a strong approach to the post, and Sato was all but unstoppable as a shooting, slicing forward. Combined with effective outside shooting from Hayley Tanabe (nine points) and Jasmine Jones (six), the Warriors’ recipe for success proved all the sweeter in the Big Game.
“It’s been our dream to get to this point all along,” Fujioka said after West was able to pull away from a solid El Dorado effort to win. “We know there’s going to be momentum shifting both ways, so we just had to lock down and make it go our way.”
Amie Nelson had four points for West, while Kayli Imoto and Bailey Kurahashi each added two. Sato also had five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Brooke Sala scored 18 and Kristy Omura had an assist for El Dorado, who clawed back from double-digit deficits to trail by only a point at halftime.
The resolve of West might best have been best demonstrated by Kurahashi, who after hitting the floor with a thud in the third quarter bounced to her feet with a determined grimace and immediately proceeded to make a steal against El Dorado.
“If you get knocked down, you have to get right back up,” Kurahashi said. “I wasn’t having the best shooting night, but obviously, my friends – my teammates – all stepped up. It’s not about me or any one of us, it’s about all of us.”
The team has been bolstered all season by the school’s fans – to whom Sato referred as the “Believe the Hype” section – who were in all their boisterous glory at APU on Saturday.
West head coach Mike Caporaso, who couldn’t stop the smile from dominating his face, was mobbed by the rooting section immediately upon emerging from the building.
“This is what high school sports is supposed to be,” Caporaso said. “These are all local kids who have grown up together. The enthusiasm goes both ways, they feed off each other. Our girls go to the football games and other sporting events, and it’s more than fan enthusiasm, it’s very personal.”
Sato’s father, Stanford, was among the most animated supporters, shouting wildly with every point his daughter scored. He said the West girls’ success is directly correlated to the support they have received from family and community, as well as their own drive and talent. He’s certain that Kayla’s academic and athletic performance will open paths to just about any university she’d like to attend after her senior year.
“College will work itself out, with or without basketball. She’ll do well,” he said. “Right now, she’s just enjoying the ride and absorbing it.”
For her part, the West star seemed fully in agreement.
“This is what you live for when you play basketball, this is the goal,” Sato said with what was left of her shredded voice. “I’m just really blessed to have this.”