First they triumphed by running, now McFarland High is doing it by dribbling, shooting, rebounding

McFarland High girls basketball co-captain Neli Díaz leads a fastbreak against Arvin. She scored a season-high 34 points in the victory.
McFarland High girls basketball co-captain Neli Díaz leads a fastbreak against Arvin. She scored a season-high 34 points in the victory.

The ‘McFarland, USA’ connection planted the seed by capturing a record nine state cross country championships.

Those dividends are paying off on the basketball court and in the classroom by a new generation of athletes, coaches and administrators who are following the mantra of “Coach Blanco,” as legendary – and now retired – cross country coach Jim White is affectionately called by his runners.

“It all trickles down from success, or having a successful program,” said Johnny Samaniego, who was a sophomore in 1987 when White’s McFarland crew claimed the state Division III title. “Cross country and track started it, and it has been contagious.”

Today, Samaniego is a head coach enjoying the success of his McFarland High girls basketball team, which completed the regular season with a 24-4 record, including a second, consecutive unbeaten league record.

McFarland High girls basketball coach Johnny Samaniego, who has led the Cougars to a 99-23 record over the last four years, lifts the net following a second consecutive unbeaten league season. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

The Cougars, who are ranked seventh in the state by Max Preps in their division, capped their regular season with an 86-58 home win over Arvin on Monday (Feb. 4). Pacing that attack was 5-foot-7 senior shooting guard Neli Díaz, who scored a season-high 34 points.

Her father, David Garza Díaz, was a senior on the 1987 McFarland High cross country team. Among those who jammed into the 82-year-old gym for the game were Garza Díaz’s parents, who were watching their granddaughter play McFarland High basketball for the first time.

Coach Blanco also watched from the stands.

Samaniego, who played point guard on the McFarland High basketball team between cross country and track seasons, credits is former coach Gary Adams for instilling a love for basketball. Adams, who was also the girls cross country coach, employed an uptempo, fast-paced game.

The McFarland High girls basketball team ended its regular season with a 24-4 record and the South Sequioa League title. Seniors Kathy Rodríguez, Lucy Barragán, Emily González, Neli Díaz and Julie Hernández fueled the team. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

“We would have to run a mile around the cuadra (block) before every game,” said Samaniego, whose team has gone 99-23 over the last four seasons and 254-114 in his career.

The McFarland high girls team – which beat teams last year by scores of 79-3, 67-5 and 95-4 while competing in the East Sierra League – has moved into the more competitive South Sequoia League this season.

“We still bring up the score against some teams, but they never stop playing. There’s no chance to let up on teams,” said Neli Díaz about the difference in competition.

Two of McFarland’s losses have been to Valley competition: A 65-57 loss at Caruthers High in late November; and a 67-57 setback at Sierra Pacific (Hanford) last month. Those teams are a combined 44-9.

A pair of losses, including one in overtime, came at a Las Vegas tournament to teams from Alaska and Nevada.

Samaniego said the team wanted to increase its strength of schedule.

McFarland High girls basketball coach Johnny Samaniego has led the Cougars to a 99-23 record over the last four years. His 13-year record is 254-114 with only two losing seasons. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

“The past couple of years being in different leagues that are weaker you can go undefeated but it hurts you in the playoff seedings,” said Samaniego. “We’ve buffed up our schedule and the results have been wonderful.”

That will be decided Saturday (Feb. 9) when the seedings are determined.

One thing is certain, however: The Division 4 field will be super competitive.

Sierra Pacific – the defending Division IV section champions who went on to capture the state Division V title last year – have been led by juniors Alana Roberts and Celeste Lewis, who are averaging a combined 31.9 points per game in a 22-5 season.

San Joaquín Memorial is 22-5, but the only two losses to Valley competition has been to powerhouse Clovis North and Buchanan.

Porterville High (24-4) and Kingsburg (21-6) are also highly competitive in the division.

“I think this year’s Division IV is pretty stacked,” said Samaniego. “It’s an honor to play with great teams.”

Julie Hernández of McFarland High gets a pass off while being chased by Deya Llanes of Arvin. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

McFarland High has all seniors in its starting five, something Samaniego believes will help in the playoffs.

A key cog is Neli Díaz, who plays second base for the softball team and has been on the cross country team. Freshmen, including her younger sister, Devianna, kept Neli from the cross country team this year.

Neli shrugs that off.

“My younger sister and other girls were faster than me. We needed our best runners on the field,” said Neli, who did run with two cross country teams that captured section titles.

Díaz loves basketball more than the other sports.

“I’ve always enjoyed it since I was little,” said Neli, who became the school’s all-time leading scorer this season with more than 2,000 total points.

Last year’s 29-4 McFarland team lost to Bakersfield Christian, 58-35 in the second round of the playoffs when Díaz was held to 6 points on 2-of-17 shooting.

“We had to redeem ourselves this year,” said Díaz. “We have a different mindset that we’re going to keep coming our harder in games and not take it easy. To keep pushing, keep learning and work harder as a team.”

McFarland High shooting guard Neli Díaz signs a poster for one of her teammates. She led the team in scoring with a 17.6 average. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Díaz, who has a 4.1 GPA, is interested into going into criminal justice (her dad and an uncle have experience as state prison correctional officers; another uncle was in law enforcement).

Díaz takes pride in the school’s athletic and academic successes. Recently, McFarland High had the highest graduation rates in Kern County at more than 99 percent, and almost half of its graduates met UC admission requirements.

“All of our programs are starting to move up. It’s a privilege,” she said.

Monday’s game was memorable for Díaz, not because of her season-high point total but because “it was fun to play with all of our seniors.”

“The moment of my last, league home game and having fun with my teammates was surreal for me,” said Díaz. “It reminded me of a lot of years I’ve played with them.”

So, what is it like to have your father’s high school accomplishments be part of a Disney movie?

“Even before the movie came out, I already respected them and loved them so much,” she said. “When the movie came out, it made me see how much of an impact they had.”

McFarland High co-captain Neli Díaz gets crowned by her father, David Garza Díaz. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Garza Díaz, who serves on the McFarland school board, has been a big supporter of the girls basketball team. Being a father to a player, having a cousin as coach, and a brother as his daughter’s high school counselor can be good and bad, he said.

“We all know each other. We know our tendencies, our strengths and our weaknesses,” said Garza Díaz. “The biggest challenge is making sure we stay out of each other’s way. I have to trust the coach and his intuition.

“That has been very, very difficult for me. I have coached basketball in the past. I’m a basketball junkie,” he added. “Johnny’s done a fantastic job.”

Garza Díaz sees the competitive spirit of the McFarland High girls basketball team and hopes it pays off in a Valley title.

“It’s our time. Why not us? We’re still around the same (1987 cross country program) and the same type of people: Thomas Valles, Mr. White, Johnny,” said Garza Díaz. “We’re addicted to winning. We do things the right way. Why not win in basketball?

“At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win in life.”

McFarland High Central Section CIF titles

(not counting cross country)

1953: Boys basketball

1983: Girls basketball

2011: Softball

2013: Girls soccer

2013: Boys soccer

2014: Softball

2015: Baseball

2015: Boys soccer

2016: Boys soccer