Juju Watkins and Sierra Canyon have had a run to remember
The USC-bound national player of the year and her teammates faced a unique schedule at their Los Angeles area high school
CHATSWORTH, California – Sierra Canyon, the best team in girls’ high school basketball, is unexpectedly trailing local rivals Etiwanda. The Trailblazers’ 31-0 record is in danger, and a trip to the California state championship is on the line.
Etiwanda leads 55-54 with 0.9 second left. Judea “Juju” Watkins, Sierra Canyon’s superstar USC commit and freshly crowned Naismith Girls High School Player of the Year, has the ball in her hands one last time. But this time, there’s no time.
The buzzer blares before she can even try a full-court heave. Watkins launches the shot anyway. Her momentum sends her tumbling to the floor, and if only for a moment, the No. 1 player in the country sits there motionless. Watkins drapes her long arms over her knees, frustration etched on her face.
Forward Mackenly Randolph, her best friend on the team, comes to pick her up. A few feet away, teammates Izela Arenas and Leia Edwards hold each other in a hug. Players on the bench are crying.
It’s a perfect season turned near-perfect, and a surprising final chapter to one of the most dominant eras in recent high school hoops. It was a rare setback for the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers – the five-time state champions who reigned undefeated for over a year, but whose bond extends past the team’s success on the hardwood.
Head coach Alicia Komaki has been at Sierra Canyon for 11 years and has coached high school for 19. This season, she knows, is different.
“A lot of my days seem to go by way too fast,” Komaki said. “It’s a lot this year.”
Fresh off a fifth California state championship, she received a phone call from ESPN in the summer of 2022. They wanted to make Sierra Canyon the face of high school girls basketball.
With that, the Juju Watkins Senior Year Tour was underway. Enter the attention and the scrutiny which, until now, had largely been reserved for the boys’ team. Fans pack arenas across the country to see Los Angeles Laker LeBron James’ 18-year-old son Bronny, who is about to have a standout senior season for the Trailblazers. LeBron James’ appearances to show support always inspire shock and awe.
Edwards, a sophomore on the girls’ team, understands.
Edwards’ first love was netball, a 7-on-7 sport created in her home country of England that is barely played around the world. Players score through a hoop, but it doesn’t have a backboard and they can’t dribble or keep the ball for more than three seconds.
But at 11 years old, what Edwards calls a massive growth spurt redirected her attention to basketball, a sister sport of sorts. By her next birthday, she was playing against girls four years older. Edwards quickly became one of England’s brightest prospects, but she needed to keep testing herself.
“I wanted to go to the [United] States,” Edwards recalled.
She applied to Sierra Canyon, filling out hours of essays and forms. It was exhausting, but worth it when she found out she got in two summers ago. Edwards was overjoyed and rushed to tell her friends.
“Oh, my gosh, you’re going to Bronny’s school!” they replied.
It’s a chilly January winter night — by LA standards, at least — and Sierra Canyon is hosting Alemany. Randolph brings the ball up the floor and steps into a powerful drive to the basket. The five-star junior is as dominant in transition as she is on the glass.
“I’m an all-around player,” she said confidently. “I like to rebound, to score, to make the right play.”
Randolph, who scored 13 points that night, is the daughter of Memphis Grizzlies legend Zach Randolph. He’s usually courtside at the school’s Feinberg Family Pavilion and will often cross paths with former NBA player Gilbert Arenas, whose daughter Izela is in the class of 2024, as well. Loyola Marymount wants her to play for them.
Both NBA fathers haven’t had the chance to mingle lately, though. Sierra Canyon hasn’t played a home game in more than a month.
“This is the toughest schedule we’ve ever had,” Komaki said.
A doubleheader on ESPN, billed as a basketball showdown between California and Texas, kicked off the team’s season in Chatsworth. After that, “all the crazy stuff” started.
First, a Thanksgiving Day flight to battle Parkway (Louisiana) and No. 2 player in the country Mikaylah Williams. Most of December was spent entirely on the road, in Utah and later Las Vegas. A six-day break allowed the team to spend Christmas at home before finishing 2022 with a three-day stretch in Portland, Oregon. Over five weeks, Sierra Canyon played every 2.8 days and traveled more than 6,000 miles.
“It’s like a business trip,” said senior guard Sofia Ruelas. “Freshman year, we were on a plane on Thanksgiving. I had never experienced anything like that. You don’t really get [it] at another school, to travel to all these places for your basketball season.”
The on-court success starts off the court. Sierra Canyon is diligent about its nutrition, conditioning, and weightlifting routines. Players use foam rollers, ice baths, and compression tools to stay in top condition.
“We want to always be intentional on all the aspects that go into winning basketball games,” Komaki said.
Because of this season’s grueling calendar, the focus has been on players’ emotional wellness. That might include working on balancing the demands of high-level basketball with school deadlines or college applications.
“For these kids, school and their sport is as much a full-time job as what I’m doing, if not more,” said Matt Armstrong, who is in his seventh year teaching English at the school.
The team has to study in airports, hotels, or cafeterias while traveling, training, exercising, and planning game strategy against top-ranked rivals. When Sierra Canyon rolls into town, they always get the other team’s best shot.
“It’s preparing us for what’s to come,” Watkins said.
As Komaki says, this wasn’t “an overnight thing.” When she arrived at the school in 2012, she was in her mid-20s and her roster had just six players. Sierra Canyon’s girls had never competed for a state title. Now, their five championships include three consecutive rings in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
The Trailblazers are often the most dynamic activity in Chatsworth, the sleepy LA suburb where the school’s idyllic campus rests. It’s a far shout from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, though, and Sierra Canyon wasn’t created with sports in mind. It started as a day camp in 1972, then was established as an elementary school in 1978. The first high school senior class didn’t graduate until 2009.
But the athletic success has led to some misconceptions, ones that can be exacerbated by the cameras and microphones that surround the school.
“You see [Sierra Canyon] everywhere on social media and papers,” said senior guard Natasha Bay.
One tweet might read: “All the kids that go to Sierra Canyon rich, spoiled, and their parents famous.” Another will say, “Sierra Canyon a different level of rich. [They] don’t count.”
It’s true that part of the school’s alumni is distinguished. Some, such as Marvin Bagley III and Ziaire Williams, currently play in the NBA. Two stars from the TV reality show Keeping Up with The Kardashians, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, attended. Its tuition — about $43,000 a year — is steep. But the school’s student body includes more than 100 ZIP codes in Los Angeles and several countries. Many can only attend on athletic or academic scholarships.
“People think there’s athletes here and there’s a lot of rich kids here, and we’re so much more than that,” Komaki said.
It can be frustrating.
“We’re all normal teenagers,” Ruelas said. “If people were to meet us and see how we are during the day, they’d think differently than what they may assume off social media.”
Edwards, for instance, is one of those students on scholarship. Her teammate, senior Crystal Wang, is among Sierra Canyon’s international population. She was the first Chinese-born female to be a California state champion and will play college ball for Northwestern.
“I remember the first day that I got to the campus,” Wang said. “I felt way different.”
For many of Sierra Canyon’s important games this season, the team took to the floor with one message on their warm-up shirts: FAMILY.
“That’s been my No. 1 word since the day I became a head coach,” Komaki said.
It’s much more than branding or a slogan. It’s how Wang adapted thousands of miles from home, or how the Trailblazers insulated themselves from the national spotlight and pressures that came with it.
“This is a very special team and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Watkins said.
Her high school trajectory, not how it ended, is what will live on. Days after her season ended, Watkins was named the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Las Vegas Aces forward Candace Parker surprised her with the award. Gold medals, MVPs, and other local and national awards are on her list of accomplishments.
Watkins will graduate from Sierra Canyon this summer and start a new chapter of her basketball journey. She grew up minutes away from her future school’s south LA campus, a much shorter trek for her mom, Sari, who sits in the front row at every game.
About an hour from her up north, Komaki will be back in the gym — as will Randolph, Arenas, Edwards, and others — on the chase for that sixth championship.