CIF championships always carry a special significance.
For the St. Joseph High girls basketball team, though, this one was extra special.
The Knights, using a mix of standout freshmen and sophomores, fended off Fresno Roosevelt for the CIF Central Section Division 3 title Thursday night in Fresno.
The win was significant for the players and coaches who spent this season playing to honor Chuck Miller, the late St. Joseph assistant coach who died suddenly last October.
Miller coached several of the girls on the team at St. Mary's School in Santa Maria. He then coached the JV team at St. Joseph to a league title and served as an assistant under head coach Analise Riezebos.
The team wore warm-up shirts in Miller's honor all season and his presence could always be felt at games.
"Our pre-game speech for every game was about playing for Chuck," Riezebos said Friday, the day after her Knights beat Roosevelt 53-45. "I know he’d be proud of these girls win or lose. We played as a family and the girls got it done for Chuck."
How did the Knights beat the Rough Riders? They used their two star freshmen, Kai Oani and Avary Cain, while also getting a big boost from their trio of sophomores: Maggie Perez, Candace Kpetikou and Gifti Tefera.
Riezebos said she made sure her players know their underclassman status didn't matter.
"Before the game, I told the players that champions don’t have an age," she said. "It doesn’t matter if you're freshmen and sophomores. They just came out and played like ballers. That's what it takes to be a champion.
"I don’t think that the age matters when you’re competing for a title and they played their hearts out. They played for Chuck."
Cain led the Knights with 15 points. Oani, Kpetikou and Tefera each scored eight and Vanneza Sevilla added five.
The Knights, though, got huge additional scoring from the sophomore Perez, who played for Miller at St. Mary's. She scored nine points.
"That scoring from Maggie really helped us in the second half," Riezebos said. "Avary was being double-teamed and everyone stepped up and showed up and did their job. That allowed us to pull it out in the end."
The Knights also had to deal with Kpetikou, a 6-foot-3 sophomore that averages nearly 15 rebounds a game, being in foul trouble. She eventually fouled out early in the fourth quarter.
"That was a hard pill to swallow when she fouled out," Riezebos said. "Gifti and Vanneza really held us down in the post. Maggie came out with great defense and key scoring in the fourth quarter to give us a boost."
Riezebos was part of the most recent St. Joseph team to win a CIF divisional title when she played for the Knights in 2010.
"It's kind of cool almost over 10 years later to be coaching this great, young team to a championship," she said. "It' a really cool full-circle moment."
The Knights will then prepare for the CIF State SoCal Regional playoffs. Seeding comes out Sunday and play begins next week.
St. Joseph is now 19-6 on the season. The Knights' championship roster features Oani, Sevilla, Cain, Tefera, Kpetikou, Perez, Jaylee Cantu, Sara Plemmons, Hailey Romero and Emily Ramirez.