Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
The Liberty Hawks boys basketball team celebrates after the final buzzer sounded for the school’s first-ever Central Section Championship after defeating Firebaugh in the Div. V title game at Selland Arena on Friday.
FRESNO — One year ago, Liberty boys basketball head coach Johnny Gonzales lost his mother to cancer. Since then, Gonzales has coached every game with his mom on his heart.
In every win or loss for the past year, Gonzales always felt that his mother was nearby to support or celebrate together.
Gonzales carried that same feeling when he led the Hawks to a Div. V Valley Championship title at Selland Arena on Friday, taking down Firebaugh 65-46.
“It was really tough to coach last year with all the stuff that was going on in my personal life, but this year felt really great,” Gonzales said. “My mom was with me here to celebrate.”
The Liberty players followed their coach’s example to bring the school its first-ever Valley Championship.
The players remember that devastating feeling they experienced a year ago when they lost against Sierra-Tollhouse in the quarterfinals. Like their coach, however, the Hawks’ players were determined to bounce back.
“For us to actually fulfill our promise feels great,” senior Makani Whiteside said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. For us to say it and go do it, that’s the best thing.”
As he has been throughout the season, Whiteside was once again the centerpiece in the championship game. The senior led the way with 38 points, including going 20-of-22 from the free throw line.
Whiteside made his first field goal after missing the first two, then made four free throws in the first five minutes, helping the Hawks jump out to a 13-4 lead.
Firebaugh, however, stayed within reach for the moment. Senior Moises Ayala found Emmanuel Alaniz on the fastbreak to bring the Eagles within five points at the end of the first quarter.
The No. 3 seed Eagles fell behind by double digits at the end of the first half, but refused to go down without a fight.
“They were giving us a tough fight and it felt great that we had what it takes to get a win,” Whiteside said.
Alaniz’s three-pointer in the third quarter brought the Eagles within eight.
Senior Jorgie Barrera also added a three-pointer in the third quarter to help the Eagles stay close.
The fourth quarter, however, proved to be the dagger in the Eagles.
Whiteside continued to get to the free throw line in the fourth quarter, while sophomore Quaid Copher added an emphatic block in the final minutes to ground the Eagles for good.
“When you put in the work and you know you deserve to be in this spot and you get to this spot and finish with a victory, it’s just the best feeling,” Whiteside said.
Senior Gary Afonin added 11 points for the Hawks, while Colton Cardoza chipped in seven. Afonin and Whiteside also anchored the backboard, leading the team with nine rebounds each. Junior Logan Stephens scored the Hawks’ only three-pointer in the game.
“For our basketball program, it’s a great accomplishment. We have never gone this far. We have never won a Valley Championship,” Whiteside said. “For me to help win this, I’m honored to say the least.”
The Hawks lost three out of four in the early part of league play. Then came a win against Firebaugh on Jan. 19, which was the start of an 11-game winning streak that extended all the way to the championship game.
“It was all about the boys,” Gonzales said. “Once I knew they wanted this as bad as I did, we put in the extra work in the spring, summer and fall and we played enough games to get us here today and did an awesome job.”