Etiwanda High School came into the MaxPreps Holiday Classic as the top-ranked team in the 120-team event and an unbeaten record, but coach Dave Kleckner was looking for more from his reigning CIF-Southern Section Division I-AA champs.
His concern was how the team has finished. The Eagles have allowed comfortable leads to slip away, and Etiwanda has hung on to barely win too many times.
On Friday afternoon, that all changed.
Against Sacramento Capital Christian, Etiwanda’s 25-17 halftime edge soon disappeared. The Cougars tied it at 38-all with 4:25 to go, then took the 42-38 lead for good with 1:20 remaining and held on for the 48-42 victory.
“We talked about it in the locker room, and it’s better that it happened now and not sometime later on in January,” said senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, who was hampered by a shoulder injury and sat out the majority of the game. “We’re gonna work hard and play to the best of our ability, push each other. This is a learning lesson for us.
“We know we have a target on our back because we’re ranked pretty high, but we’re trying to prepare for every game like it’s our last game.”
McLaughlin, who has signed to play for USC next year, shrugged off the No. 8 rank in the national poll and the No. 4 spot in California, but after playing in back-to-back seasons where the Eagles finished 28-3 and 30-3, Etiwanda has earned those numbers.
Last year, after what Kleckner says “flying under the radar” and barely making a poll, the Eagles beat rival Long Beach Poly on the road in the CIF playoffs, then proceeded to disptach Mater Dei to win it all.
“We had struggled losing to Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly in the past,” said Kleckner. “We’ve been there before and then finally beat them.
“This year, we have four kids who went through that experience and were part of that — an integral part. We got one of the better backcourts in California with Jordan and Dominick (Alexander). We’re not real big, but we play with toughness.”
Now, teams are aware of Etiwanda and what it accomplished, how they can hang on and opponents are gunning for them.
Senior Tyler Jennings led Capital Christian with 12 points, including 10 of 10 from the free throw line, four in the final 20 seconds. D.J. Wilson (Michigan commit) and Uchenna Iroegbu each added 11 points in the defensive struggle. The Cougars advance to Saturday’s semifinals against defending champ Westchester.
For the Eagles, Alexander led with 12 points and Kameron Edwards had 10.