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The College of the Sequoias women's basketball team is aiming to win its first state title since the 1987 season. Wochit

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In 1987, College of the Sequoias women's basketball coach Ray Alvarado was playing football at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster.

His Giants players?

They were yet to be born.

That year, COS won its first California Community College Atheltic Association State championship in program history.

Fast forward 31 years later and the Giants have an opportunity to bring home a second state title.

COS qualified for the CCCAA Women's Basketball State Championships for the third time in four seasons.

The Giants (28-3) tip-off the eight-team tournament against Mt. San Jacinto (29-2) on Thursday for a quarterfinal showdown in Ventura. Game time is 7 p.m.

"We really emphasized unselfishness and teamwork this year," Alvarado said. "And the kids bought into it. They had early success and that helped them believe in themselves more. They just had more success and it just snowballed."

A promising start

Under Alvarado, the Giants are not just a basketball team.

They consider each other family and teammates refer to one another as sisters.

Together, that has helped develop a family-oriented atmosphere where players thrive and rely on one another in high-pressure situations.

Despite returning only four players from last season's 27-win team, the Giants meshed early in the offseason, and by the time Alvarado's club hit the floor for official games, the team chemistry was already there.

The four sophomores — Isabella Jimenez, Zharia McCollum, N'Dea Jones, Cassidy Rodriguez — provided guidance and leadership and the freshmen fulfilled their roles.

With that type of team-first attitude, COS got off to a hot start.

The Giants opened the 2017-18 season with a perfect 15-0 record before suffering their first defeat to Fresno City in the West Hills Tournament championship game.

Players cited that early success was due to the team's tight-knight relationships.

"What we do off the court definitely shows on the court," COS freshman and former Exeter High standout Danica Todd said. "We all relate really well to each other. We all work really well with one another. We're friends on the court and even off the court, we're with each other. We're always hanging out with each other on campus, off campus. I think that translates to the court. That team chemistry." 

During that phenomenal non-conference run, the Giants also won the 41st annual Tom Gilcrest Invitational championship for the first time since 1991.

The Gilcrest Invitational, which is hosted by COS, is the only 16-team tournament in the state.

"We look at ourselves as a family working hard for each other," McCollum said. "It's, like, we represent COS and Visalia. We're all a family. As a family and as a team, we play for each other."

Battle tested

COS captured a Central Valley Conference title for the second straight season.

The Giants shared the 2018 CVC title with Merced (26-5) and Fresno City (26-5). All three posted identical 10-2 records during conference action.

All three of the Giants' losses came to CVC teams, too.

They fell 65-55 to Fresno City on Dec. 15 at the West Hills Tournament.

Merced defeated COS 66-63 on Jan. 10 in a CVC game and Fresno City registered its second victory over the Giants in a 77-71 win.

Along with COS, Fresno City and Merced also advanced to the State Championships.

"It's something that we've worked really hard for," Todd said. "It's good to see that all of our hard work is paying off. All those extra runs that we did are paying off. Us working well together and talking, we earned it. It's a really good feeling."

Although COS captured its third CVC crown since 2015, Alvarado noted what helped cement the team's confidence was beating four recent state champions in non-conference play: Ventura, Mt. San Antonio College, Pasadena City and Chabot.

Those victories led to consistency.

The Giants, who are on a six-game winning streak, are averaging 74.2 points per game and have scored 70 points or more 19 times this season.

How have the Giants played at a high level all season long?

Alvarado's family environment.

"That's definitely helped us a lot," McCollum said. "We definitely need that team chemistry on and off the court. When someone goes in for a lay-up or does something or messes up, because of our chemistry, we are able to motivate them to get back up to not think about it. To keep fighting. That definitely motivates everyone to keep going. We know that even if we do something wrong, our sisters or coaches will be there to pick us back up."

Chasing a dream

McCollum is one of four sophomores who remembers last season's gut-wrenching loss in the state quarterfinals.

COS fell 74-70 to Palomar and the Giants' goal of winning a state title came to an end.

But that defeat has also provided fuel, especially for the sophomore class.

They see it as a second chance.

"It's been really fun," McCollum said. "We've just grinded it out. With all the wins, we know, 'We can do this.' It's been good."

McCollum is COS' leading scorer. She is averaging 11 points per game in 27 appearances.

But the Giants don't need her to score the bulk of the team's points.

Under Alvarado, the Giants share the basketball and scoring can come from every player on the floor.

Of the team's 14-player roster, 12 have scored 100 points or more this season and 11 different Giants have attempted 100 shots or more.

That unselfish, team-first mentality has led to 2,300 points scored. The Giants are also hitting 41.4 percent of their shots from the field — the 10th-best mark in the state.

The strength under Alvarado's watch has been team defense, though.

COS is allowing just 51 points per game — the fourth fewest in California.

The Giants limited opposing teams this season to 32.8 percent shooting and are hoping that formula will culminate in a state title.

"That would be amazing," McCollum said. "With these group of girls — we have a girl from Canada, Israel — to bring it all together and win state, that would just be great. Playing under coach Ray, I feel like that would be wonderful. I would love to do it for Visalia, my teammates and for myself."

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