In the end, the final score — 24-17 — failed to fully capture the championship game’s drama and importance.
The Coronado Elementary Cougars, who were the defending league champs, had, in fact, found itself trailing at halftime. They were caught off guard by the grit, effort and skill of Verde Elementary, a new team with a small roster that few expected would be in the championship game at Kennedy High on April 27.
But the game soon turned from a Cinderella story into a comeback story, as Coronado pulled ahead in the second half to become the 2019 WCCUSD Elementary School Basketball League champions.
Keilan Hunter, the principal and basketball coach at Coronado Elementary, described Verde as a “formidable foe that played with class.” Verde Coach Justin Johnson paid the same respect to Coronado’s team — and he he had an important message for his players after the loss.
“I told them, it was bigger than that one game,” Johnson said.
Indeed it was. And not just because of his team’s improbable ascension to the championship game.
In the wake of another successful co-ed elementary school basketball season, coaches, parents and school administrators are touting the value of the West Contra Costa Unified’s partnership with the City of Richmond on new elementary school sports leagues.
A first for the district, two years ago elementary school leagues were launched in basketball and soccer as part of a pilot program, with the stated aims of increasing “academics, attendance, and health outcomes for students.”
In its first year, the league served elementary schools feeding into Kennedy High, then expanded in its second year to include feeder schools to Richmond High.
Along with the value of physical activity, teamwork skills and comradery with classmates, the new Elementary School League emphasizes academics and parent participation.
The league requires classroom progress reports, which uplifts student athletes motivated to playing basketball with their teammates.
“The league allows elementary school students to get the same academic and athletic experience as middle schools, high schools and colleges,” Hunter said. “It also allows those students who have those athletic talents to understand the partnership between athletics and academics.”
It also helps to build a sense of community.
“We tend to get a large turnout of parents wanting to support the students,” said Hunter.
Johnson, a district Graduate Tutor who was formerly program director at the Boys & Girls Club of El Sobrante, said he went classroom to classroom recruiting for the first Verde team of 5th and 6th graders. The team ended up short-handed, but they committed to two weekly practices in addition to the Saturday games and “always came ready to play,” Johnson said.
“Overall they had a great mindset that they wanted to learn and grow,” he said. “A lot of these kids were just learning to play, and we put in the time and work.”
That’s part of the reason Johnson aims to continue to support the league.
“It brings pride, community and it’s just another opportunity outside of the typical education system for these kids to learn and grow,” he said.