Sierra Canyon’s ‘Juju farewell tour’ faces its toughest test against Country Day

Two months ago, when her Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High’s office was stuffed with boxes of jerseys and a run at back-to-back state championships was hypothetical, 11th-year girls’ basketball coach Alicia Komaki leaned against her desk and mused that — gasp — the Trailblazers might actually lose a few games this season.

She knew going into the season that it would be the toughest schedule any of her teams had played. And Sierra Canyon played 13 straight games to start the season against out-of-state teams, three of which were ranked in ESPN’s national top 25. They didn’t play a home game until the end of December. Komaki half-joked she slept in her own bed only three times last month.

So she took it a step further.

“I think it’s the toughest schedule anybody’s ever put together,” Komaki said.

There was a special opportunity this season, Komaki said, to put together that schedule in national anticipation of transcendent USC commit Juju Watkins’ senior season, which the coach has dubbed the “Juju farewell tour.”

Somehow, the tour bus hasn’t hit a single pothole. The Trailblazers have gone 14-0 but will face their toughest test yet Saturday, taking on a 16-1 La Jolla Country Day team in The Chosen-1s Invitational at USC’s Galen Center — Watkins’ stomping ground next season.

Could Saturday bring that first loss Komaki anticipated?

“One-thousand percent,” Komaki said. “They’re one of the top five teams in the country. We’re not untouchable. And that’s kind of the fun part of this year is, we’re not just doing this [schedule] knowing we’re automatically getting wins everywhere we go.”

The Sierra Canyon-La Jolla girls game is at 6:30 p.m., part of a schedule of four games in the LeBron James- and Nike-sponsored tournament. The Mater Dei girls and boys play the Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary, girls and boys at 3 and 4:30 p.m., respectively, while the Sierra Canyon boys take on Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler at 8 p.m.

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Saturday could bring one of the best games in recent girls’ basketball showdowns. The last three Country Day-Sierra Canyon games, dating to 2019-20, have been decided by a total of four points. This season features two of the best teams in each program’s history, cores intact and improved from the Trailblazers’ one-point win over the Torreys in the CIF Open Division state tournament last year.

Back for Country Day are four players averaging double figures: the athletic Taj Roberts, shooter and UC San Diego commit Sumayah Sugapong, crafty guard and NIL star Jada Williams, and 6-foot-4 interior presence Breya Cunningham. Williams and Cunningham are both committed to Arizona, and share a special point guard-big connection — La Jolla coach Terri Bamford called Cunningham, who averages 19.4 points and 2.8 blocks a game, “one of the best post players in the country.”

As always, La Jolla’s defense will have to throw the kitchen sink at Watkins — but it’s not that easy. Last year, Bamford said, they tried to double team Watkins by using Cunningham to help off Sierra Canyon senior forward Crystal Wang. It didn’t work. Wang, a talented scorer who just led the Trailblazers with 21 points against Studio City Harvard-Westlake on Tuesday, had “the game of her life,” Bamford remembered.

Then there’s guard Izela Arenas, junior daughter of former NBA All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas, who changes gears and directions on her drives to the rim like a Chevrolet from the “Fast & Furious” movies. Or Mackenly Randolph, junior daughter of former All-Star forward Zach Randolph, who’s honed an inside-out game and is relentless on the boards.

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Plus, the Trailblazers have an intriguing piece to throw at Cunningham in freshman center Emilia Krstevski, who held her own in an early-season matchup against South Grand Prairie (Texas) and star junior center Adhel Tac.

“Putting that kind of talent on display … people will be excited about it,” Bamford said. “It’s fun basketball, it’s high-scoring basketball. I think as role models for both high schools, younger players growing up right now watching them play, [it] inspires young kids to be, ‘Hey, I want to be like that.’”

Others to watch

—Santa Ana Mater Dei 6-foot guard Addison Deal, a summer transfer from Santa Monica Pacifica Christian, is one of the top guards in the country. She’s a triple-double threat flanked by senior guard and Concordia commit Hannah Vela and senior guard and Tennessee Chattanooga commit Caia Elisaldez on a deep 13-2 Monarch girls’ team that’s just a tier below Sierra Canyon and Etiwanda in the Southern Section girls’ basketball hierarchy.

—The Sierra Canyon boys aren’t the only team at The Chosen-1’s Invitational with royal bloodlines. The 13-2 Mater Dei boys include freshman Cole Leinart, son of USC Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart; freshman Malloy Smith, son of NBA champion Kenny Smith; and freshman Che Brogan, son of Mater Dei great Tom Lewis. Brogan, in particular, is a 6-foot-6 standout making an immediate impact on a young Monarch team.

—USC hoops fans in attendance will have plenty to get excited about. They can see future Trojans in Watkins and 2023 USC men’s commits Isaiah Collier and Arriten Page, talented players for an 8-4 Wheeler team that’ll give the Trailblazer boys one of their toughest opponents of the season.

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