BERKELEY -- After two consecutive trips to the Division I state championship game, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Berkeley High girls basketball team.

And after a demoralizing loss in the North Coast Section semifinals, it looked as if the Yellowjackets' season would end quietly.

Then something clicked. With the No. 12 seed in the Division I Northern California regional playoffs, Berkeley refocused, turned up its defense and went on the road to win three straight games.

Now the Yellowjackets are on a familiar stage -- the NorCal championship game -- with a young team that had been mostly unfamiliar with closing out big games until last week.

The Yellowjackets (21-11) play Oak Ridge-El Dorado Hills (28-4) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena.

Berkeley coach Cheryl Draper really has only one explanation for her team's improbable run: Rachel Howard wasn't ready for her senior season to be over.

"She refuses to finish her high school career without playing her best and giving the most she can," Draper said. "She just refuses to go out like that."

The team's only four-year varsity player, Howard has emerged as the unquestioned leader and go-to player for a Yellowjackets squad light in size and varsity experience. The 5-foot-10 wing knew this season wouldn't be quite like her first three, when the Yellowjackets were deep in Division I talent.

After a rough December, things got better for the Yellowjackets as the newcomers gained experience. Howard often would act as a third coach in practice, getting her younger teammates up to speed.

"Being such a young team, we had to focus (on the basics and fundamentals)," said Howard, who recently committed to the USF. "We couldn't spend an hour on defense like we usually did."

Draper said Howard has the attention and respect of her peers but also knows when it's time to have fun.

"She's a crackup, a riot," Draper said. "She's a great kid to be around."

Howard has done her part on the court, too, scoring in double figures in each of the Yellowjackets' NorCal games. She had a double-double in a quarterfinals victory over McClymonds, then poured in 27 points in Tuesday's 54-46 semifinal victory over Gunn-Palo Alto.

Now the Yellowjackets face a 10th-seeded Oak Ridge team that went on a similarly impressive run in the regional playoffs.

The Trojans, who also lost in their section's semifinals, beat Berkeley in the NorCal final during Howard's freshman season on its way to the state title. Howard's hoping for a different ending this time, but she said the up-and-down ride of her senior season will be memorable no matter the outcome.

"It's not always about being the best and having the most talented people on your team," Howard said. "There are more benefits than winning every single game."

ONLINE EXTRA
Visit www.contracostatimes.com/high-school-sports or www.insidebayarea.com/high-school-sports on Saturday for a live blog from Saturday's Northern California basketball championships. The live blog begins at 10 a.m.