NEWARK — Ask Newark Memorial High School basketball players what it'll take to win the school's first state championship Saturday and you'll get a one-word answer: "Defense."
The Cougars, who weren't nationally ranked when the season began, have hustled and pressed their way to the state Division I title game in Bakersfield against the heavily favored Westchester Comets of Los Angeles.
Westchester, which is ranked No. 4 in the country, has several top-flight Division 1 collegiate recruits and 10 players who measure 6-foot, 4-inches and taller.
No. 53-ranked Newark Memorial has none.
"On paper it doesn't look good, but that's why you play the game," Newark coach Craig Ashmore said. "Our guys are just really tough and guard people."
It will be Newark's second shot at basketball glory.
In 2000, the school made the Division II state finals only to run into the nation's top-ranked team with a center, Tyson Chandler, who one year later was picked second overall in the NBA draft.
If Newark can pull off the upset this time around, residents better be ready for a party, students said.
"It's going to be Mardi Gras down Cedar Boulevard," said Julian Moncaleano, a 14-year-old freshman, who was trying to find a ride to the big game, scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday at the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield.
The school last week charted a fan bus to Sacramento for the Northern California finals, where the team defeated a taller squad from De La Salle. But Newark Memorial couldn't line up a charter for Bakersfield, said Assistant Principal Jonathan Ferrer, who plans to drive down for the game and return the same night.
Victoria Cerda, a 16-year-old junior, said her mother or sister will take her to Bakersfield. "Our team needs support," she said.
The players are keenly aware of what a victory would mean for the city.
"We'll have our name out there" senior forward Khion Sankey said. "No more, 'Who's Newark?' "
They also know they're a big underdog — but if that makes them nervous, they weren't showing it at Thursday's practice.
"If you play defense, you always got a chance," sophomore guard Casey Norris said.
Jisaun Randle a senior forward said of a victory, "It'll show to everyone that playing together and hard work really do pay off."
The game will be televised either live or on tape delay on Fox Sports Prime Ticket and Comcast Sports Bay Area.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002. Read his blog at www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat.