Home » Sage Hill girls basketball motivated for final postseason run with ‘Mamba 5’

Sage Hill girls basketball motivated for final postseason run with ‘Mamba 5’

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NEWPORT COAST — For the players and coaches who experienced Kobe Bryant’s passion for girls basketball, his vision for the Sage Hill program was pretty clear.

“Our plan is to be No. 1 in the country,” Lightning coach Kerwin Walters said without hesitation this week.

That was the plan before the Lakers star and eight others died that fateful day in January 2020, and it remains the plan as the Sage Hill approaches its final postseason with five players who played on Bryant’s Mambas youth team.

On Saturday night, seniors Zoie Lamkin, Kat Righeimer, Annabelle Spotts and Emily Eadie will team with sophomore Amalia Holguin in an attempt to continue their rise in the CIF-SS Open Division playoffs.

Sage Hill (24-2), ranked second in Orange County, plays at No. 1 Mater Dei (22-6), which is 4-0 against the Lightning since it first began to face Bryant’s proteges in the 2021-22 season.

Sage Hill is ranked No. 24 in the nation — how’s that for symbolism — by MaxPreps. The team hasn’t reached the top perch but a victory in its pool-play opener against Mater Dei would add another chapter to its unfolding story of perseverance and togetherness.

“This one hits a little different,” Holguin said of the matchup. “We’re both in O.C. and some rankings are higher than others so we want to show what we have in store for them.”

In early December, Mater Dei extended its dominance over the Lightning with a 74-64 victory at the Troy Classic. The dynamics for both teams have changed since.

The Lightning added sitout transfer Aurora Elder to their frontcourt rotation and welcomed the rise of freshman Kamdyn Klamberg. Mater Dei has adjusted to the season-ending injury to reigning county player of the year Addison Deal by developing Emily Shaw into a dangerous scorer.

For Sage Hill’s so-called Mamba 5, their final season together has sprung time for reflection.

There’s been Senior Night with family and friends and a bonding trip to the East Coast. There’s been final rounds for jokes of the day, quotes of the day and alley-oop passes.

“I’ve had time to reflect,” said Righeimer, one of the team’s jokesters. “We’ve been playing together since like fourth and fifth grade, so it will definitely be a huge change when we’re off to different places to play.

“So far, I’ve just been taking (it one) day at a time, just trying to live in the present right now because this is my last year playing with them and I want to enjoy every moment of it.”

There’s been plenty of growth on the journey.

The season before Lamkin, Righeimer, Spotts and Eadie arrived, Sage Hill was a middling program on the county scene that lost in the second round of the Division 3AA playoffs.

The next season, the Lightning captured the CIF-SS Division 3AA title to signal their arrival. They claimed the state Division II championship in 2022 and reached the Open Division playoffs for the first time last winter.

The players can recount all the big moments along the way. The clutch shots by Lamkin and Righeimer come up quickly, even by Holguin who was in the stands as a spectator at the games.

“I’m just really proud of how far we’ve come, especially at Sage,” Eadie said. “Coming from all the way from the bottom, Division 3, and then just coming all the way up to the top bracket in the Open Division. It’s just really crazy to see our progress and how good we’ve become.”

That progress draws inspiration from Bryant’s Mamba Mentality, which centers on hard work and passion for the process.

The Lightning’s respect for Bryant and others killed in the 2020 helicopter crash remains visible in many ways.

For big games, they often don Bryant’s bright green Grinch sneakers. They’ve also wore Bryant’s new white Halo shoes this season.

The players honor their Mamba days with a special handshake that they enjoyed at practices with Bryant. And the team’s social media uses the hashtag #4the8, a reference to those who died in the crash.

The Mamba 5 lost three of their teammates — Bryant’s daughter Gianna, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester — along with their assistant coach Christina Mauser (Edison). Altobelli’s parents John and Keri and Chester’s mother Sarah also died on the flight to a basketball tournament.

“They’re always with us when we step on the court,” Spotts said. “Obviously, it’s never going to be the same and there’s still going to be kind of a hole in your heart but they’re always there.”

For the seniors, their efforts will soon extend into college basketball. Eadie has committed to Princeton while Righeimer and Spotts are headed to Northwestern and the University of Chicago, respectively.

Lamkin isn’t sure of her college plans but all the players vow to stay close. Righeimer and Spotts already know how many minutes separate their colleges in the Chicago area.

In the end, it’s the those enduring connections, spawned on the Mambas, that lead to the support on and off the court, even in the most challenging of times.

“Obviously, we went through something that was so difficult,” Lamkin said. “But I want people to see that we came into this school and we continued that plan that we had set back when we were in seventh and eighth grade … and we did it well.”

“I want people to see that we’re doing good in life,” she added, “and that we made them proud.”

Sage Hill has accomplished just that even without being No. 1 in the nation. “We coach for the experiences,” Walters said. “They’re a good group of kids who are starting to reach their full potential in hoops and in life.”