Lady Firehawks crowned national (Jewish) champs

Basketball team skips CIF playoffs to win its first-ever crown at Galbut Tournament in Miami; Sigal Spitzer is MVP, averaging 20.6 points in her last game; Flava wins his first title as coach

Mati Hurwitz, Sports Editor

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The Lady Firehawks decided to skip the CIF Division 6 playoffs this year and instead tasted national gold in Miami.  By defeating Weinbaum of Boca Raton 46-41 Feb. 21 in the final of the Hyman P. Galbut Tournament, Shalhevet basketball reigned queen of the Jewish world.

After finishing second in the CIF Division 6 playoffs a year ago, Shalhevet traded its local post-season bid for a chance to compete against 11 other Modern Orthodox high schools at the four-day event, which was hosted by RASG Hebrew Academy of Miami.

Senior Sigal Spitzer, team captain and tournament MVP, averaged 20.6 points per game as Shalhevet showed no mercy while avenging its third place finish at Galbut in 2013.

Sigal said the win meant a lot to the team, calling it “a true national championship.”

“We really wanted this,” Sigal said after the tournament ended. “Because we are a Modern Orthodox school and our real competitors are Modern Orthodox schools, it was amazing to see how much we rose above everyone else.”

For Coach Ronnie “Flava” Winbush, it was the first time he led a Shalhevet squad to a championship.

“They worked really hard to achieve a prestigious goal,” Coach Flava reflected while back in LA. “I’m just happy to be there with them. It was a long, hard-fought journey to get to the top of the mountain.”

Thanks to the internet, Lady Firehawk fans back in Los Angeles got to watch.  By logging on to thecube.com – a livestreaming website – on the morning of Feb. 20, about 20 students and faculty watched all or part of their games from the JCC as their team made school history. Others watched the weekend games at home.

“Watching them, it looked like they came out to Miami prepared to fight, determined,” recalled Shalhevet tennis star Nathan Benyowitz, who watched the Lady Firehawks at school and at home on Saturday night. “You could tell straight away that they were going to win and nothing was going to stop them.”

Sigal’s consistent scoring and aggressive play highlighted a complete team performance that featured a mix of youth and experience, along with stifling defense and unselfish ball movement.

Sophomore Liora Rabizadeh and freshman Shaya Rosen knocked down shots from behind the arc while juniors Nicole Newman and Sarah Mankowitz and freshman Loren Edry controlled the glass and the interior to showcase strong play from the old and the young, the big and the small.

Loren credited a mix of upper and lowerclassmen with the team’s success.

“I think it contributed a lot,” Loren said. “I bonded with a lot of them and learned new things from them.”

Sigal said the team was so close and energetic with one another that other schools asked about it.

“The other teams often approached us and asked us how we have so much fun together,” said Sigal. “The only way to win championships is to have chemistry off the court also.”

After blowing through wins over Ida Crown of Chicago (53-29), HAFTR of Cedarhurst, N.Y. (53-30 and 49-20), and L.A. rival YULA (45-32), Shalhevet faced its only competitive opponent in the Weinbaum Storm. Weinbaum was playing in its third consecutive championship game, and won the title last year.

The teams were neck and neck through the first 16 minutes as they traded baskets. The Lady Firehawks led 21-20 at the half.

“Weinbaum was a tough opponent because they were faster than us,” said Sigal. “I think they had more all-around players,” she said, as opposed to specific role players.

Storm shooter Maital Citron, among others, gave the Lady Firehawks trouble. Maital, who was the tournament Three-Point Shootout champion, punished Shalhevet from beyond the arc and dropped 25 in the final game.

“I played hard in all my games just as all of my teammates did,” Maital told the Boiling Point. She also said that her mindset was to “play hard, make good, sharp passes, and make my shots.”

But Shalhevet, led by Coach Flava, was able to overcome Maital’s strong performance and Weinbaum’s potent offense.

Coach Flava’s pressure defense forced a myriad of Weinbaum turnovers, which were converted into Shalhevet buckets in the third quarter. While the Lady Firehawks never blew the game open completely, they maintained a two-to-three possession lead from then on.

Coach Flava told the Boiling Point there was no special game plan to defeat the Storm.

“We try not to concern ourselves with the other team,” Coach Flava said. “We got to stick to the course. We got to stick to what we do and impose our will.”

Although Shalhevet controlled the tempo of the second half, Weinbaum caught fire from the outside and continued to challenge the eventual champions.

But Sigal’s aggressive drives down the stretch culminated in a 17-point performance and proved just too much for the Storm. She said the team’s confidence and composure were vital to the win.

“Our motto is to keep everything simple…to play basketball,” she said, echoing her coach’s words.

The buzzer sounded and the Lady Firehawks became national champions, jumping all over each other and Coach Flava as the queens of the Jewish basketball world. For the squad, this win and that moment were the most significant of their careers.

“Every time you win a championship, you have to go to the top of the list,” said Coach Flava, who told the Boiling Point this was his only coaching championship.

He added that having coached Sigal for four years, her winning tournament MVP was the only fitting way to end her career.

“Sigal’s a coach’s dream,” he said. “It’s been a true pleasure.”

Even the opposition was in awe of the Lady Firehawk star, who has worn number 21 for four years.

“I have to give a little shout out to number 21 for playing an incredible game that helped bring her team to victory,” Maital added.

The Firehawk front court rounded out the stat line in the championship game. Center Loren Edry scored 9 and power forward Sarah Mankowitz had 8.

Loren, a freshman who had her best performance in the finale, told the Boiling Point that her coach and teammates enabled her to tune out the hype of the game and focus on winning a championship in that moment.

“I think it’s words from my coach that really helped me step up my game,” Loren said. “It was also the upperclassmen who helped me get through the pressure and the nerves.”

After dominating the Mulholland League year after year, Shalhevet never became a household name in Division 6 playoffs until last season, when the No. 9 seeded Lady Firehawks rallied all the way to the title game, which they lost to No. 2 Valley Christian Academy.

Shalhevet proved it is a Jewish basketball powerhouse when it finished third in Galbut in 2013.

But the championship game was more significant than just a national title win. It was not only a storybook ending to Sigal’s career and keepsake of a fun bonding experience in South Beach, but also a solidifying moment in a prestigious era of Shalhevet Basketball – for boys and girls.

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