Cody Yamaki drives to the basket during Saturday’s CIF L.A. City Section Div. II championship game at the downtown Roybal Learning Center. Yamaki scored 11 points for the L.A. Center for Enriched Studies, who defeated Van Nuys for their fifth boys’ basketball title.

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor

A good 15 minutes after the game had ended, Cody Yamaki still clung to the championship plaque, as if there was a possibility they might come to take it back.

As the players of the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies basked in the glory of their fifth-ever CIF City Section title, Yamaki was still experiencing an adrenaline spike, bouncing around like he’d had six cups of coffee and the meter was running.

After several rounds of photos with teammates and family, hugs from schoolmates and finally letting someone else hold the trophy, Yamaki eventually took a few deep breaths and came to grips with the full weight of the moment: his Unicorns had toppled a talent squad from Van Nuys to capture the Div. II crown.

“As a senior, I’ve been working for this for four years,” said a still-breathless Yamaki, who scored 11 points in LACES’ 61-46 victory and the downtown Royal Learning Center gymnasium. “It’s great to close out senior year with a championship.”

After a back-and-forth battle that saw the halftime score tied at 24, LACES sprang out of the gate in the third quarter, opening a seven-point lead midway through the period. The Wolves clawed back, tying the score briefly, but the Unicorns mounted another run and went into the fourth quarter with a 47-38 lead.

LACES led the final frame by as much as 10, with Van Nuys closing to within four at one point, but the top seed had too much energy, too much speed, too much composure.

Clutching the championship plaque, Yamaki celebrates with teammates following the awards ceremony.

Sophomore Donovan Cornelius scored 13 of his game-high 18 points in the third, with Bryce Ussery and Kennedy Duru each matching Yamaki’s 11 points. Andrew Angulo led Van Nuys with 13.

The top seed in the tournament, LACES was moved up to Div. II and responded to the enhanced competition in fine form, winning their first City Section title since 2015.

Among the Yamaki cheering section was his older sister, Ayleen, who owns a pair of titles she earned in her playing days at LACES, championships in 2014 and 2015.

“I didn’t need to tell him anything before the game,” she said while giving her kid brother several pats on the back. “He’s always been motivated and perfectly capable of handling himself.”

Their visibly proud father said he fully expected to see Cody play in the finals last year, but a broken foot kept him out of action for more than six weeks toward the end of the season.

“They really earned this one,” Clifford Yamaki said. “The got bumped up a division, and this year was going to be a lot tougher.”

With the score tied at halftime, Yamaki’s mother, Reiko, might have been more nervous than the players.

Yamaki celebrates with family after the game – from left, aunt June Yamaki, father Clifford, sister Ayleen, friend Andrew Nguyen and mother Reiko. Ayleen was on two LACES teams that won City Section titles.

“I knew they would come back, but in the moment, it’s hard to stay calm. Cody really did his best – ganbatta,” she said.

Family titles at LACES have a precedent; in 2014, both the girls’ and boys’ teams won titles, with the sister-brother pair Sidney and Dean Tanioka both bringing home championship medals.

Yamaki has played at guard on the LACES varsity team all four years, taking the captain’s armband in his sophomore season. At a school known principally for its solid academics, the Unicorns have had unexpected success in basketball. In an interview with the school newspaper his second year, Yamaki responded to the low attendance at LACES games: “They’re missing a good show.”

The crowds were definitely on hand last Saturday, a sorely welcome sight as the world of prep sports gradually emerges from two pandemic-stunted seasons.

Next up for LACES is the CIF State tournament, with the initial pairings announced on Sunday. The Unicorns open up in Div. IV Tuesday at Garden Grove.

Meanwhile, the trophy case at the Yamaki house has already seen expansion, with the possibility of more to come, as Yamaki also plays water polo and volleyball. Not that there’s any sibling rivalry at play, but he did make note of the tally of basketball titles between him and his sister.

“She has two, so I had to be sure and earn at least one,” he said, still somewhat out of breath.

•   •   •

In the girls’ City Section Div. II final, Lindsey Kadonaga and Chatsworth couldn’t prevent Verdugo Hills from making it three straight titles, falling 53-43.

•   •   •

Karly Kakimoto and Orangewood Academy are headed to the State Div. I playoffs, hosting Mount Miguel on Tuesday.

In Div. II, Maya Naito and Brentwood will host their first-round match with Orange Lutheran.

Eagle Rock, with Stephanie Tada and Regine Go, will face top-seed La Salle in the opening round.

The girls of LACES will play in the State Div. IV bracket. Katie Chiba, Katelyn Yoshimi, Moka Tsukino, Haley Kineshiro, Maya Sano and company will be at home to Aquinas.

Mater Dei (Hannah Vela, Emily Shaw) will compete in the Open Division, starting Wednesday at La Jolla Country Day.

Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo

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