Tehiyah girls victorious despite loss

They trailed all game long and ultimately lost the basketball finals last week. But El Cerrito's Tehiyah Timberwolves felt like champions.

Clasping each other in tears, the girls who play for the Jewish day school's 3-year-old team celebrated how far they've come.

"It's a miracle they're here," said parent Chana Kronfeld. "These girls didn't expect to make it to the semifinals. They're such a young team. It's all defense and spirit and David and Goliath stories."

On the scoreboard, Goliath proved victorious this time. Oakland's Redwood Day School, the reigning champs of the East Bay Middle School Athletic League, toppled the Timberwolves 33-18 to once again clinch the league title.

To get to the finals, Tehiyah players had to surmount setbacks and tragedy: the lack of a gym, the death in December of school principal Revira Singer and the graduation of many members of last year's varsity team.

Somehow, the fifth-seeded Timberwolves upset fourth- and first-ranked teams over two consecutive days to win their stunning trip to the championship match on Thursday of last week.

That's when the streak ended. But the final score didn't matter as much as the journey there.

"I sort of dedicated this season to Dr. Singer," said eighth-grade center Maya Guendelman, her eyes welling up. Singer, the school's head since 1994, was a strong supporter of its basketball program.

Guendelman admitted that she was plagued by doubts about the team's ability at the start of the season, and the initial games reflected that insecurity. "I was just a little pessimistic," she said. "We had such a strong team last year.

"We all stuck together and played as a team," she said. "Then we came to the championships and everything clicked."

Coach Barry Kleiman, a parent who started the girls' and boys' basketball programs from scratch, said the sport "has built a tremendous family" at Tehiyah, cementing friendships among parents and youngsters alike. "Basketball has done I can't tell you how much for our school," he said.

At the finals, about 80 Tehiyah parents, students and recent graduates filled their half of the wooden bleachers in the gym at Windrush School in El Cerrito. Some had a daughter or sister on the team, but others were there just to cheer for Tehiyah and its scrappy players.

"They've been playing so magnificently," said Jill Dodd, whose daughter, Lizzie, is an eighth-grade starter on the team. "They're like the '69 Mets." The accomplishment was even more impressive, considering three of the team's four eighth-grade starters hadn't played basketball until the team was formed.

"I saw what I could do," explained Lizzie Dodd, a power forward.

"I'm not quitting basketball for a long, long time."

Though the taller and stronger Redwood Day team jumped to a 9-0 lead in the first quarter, Tehiyah fans remained as irrepressible as their team. Parents stamped their feet, clapped their hands and led chants, "Let's go Tehiyah, Let's go," for the girls in the blue-and-white jerseys.

A huge cheer erupted when Tehiyah point guard Maya Kronfeld scored the team's first basket in the second quarter.

The Tehiyah team remained tough until the end. "They're playing as if there wasn't this huge disparity," said Chana Kronfeld, noting that the Redwood Day starting line-up towered over Tehiyah's players.

At the buzzer, Kleiman told his players, "You have nothing to be sad about. Look what you've done for your school. You didn't lose, you won. You're the first Tehiyah girls to make it to the finals."

Last year it was the boys' turn. Kleiman's boys' team won the championship while the girls made it to the semifinals.

The achievement was even more remarkable given that Tehiyah players must travel to rental gyms to get in just twice-weekly practices. Though the school has plans for a gym, it still must come up with the money to build one.

"Our program, in my opinion, deserves a gym," Kleiman said.

Jill Dodd echoed the sentiments of many parents and players who credited Kleiman with getting his teams this far. "It's all Barry," she said. "They adore him. He's just the right combination of loving and strict."

An unpaid volunteer, Kleiman has a seventh-grade son, Benji, who plays for Tehiyah. His daughter played on the girls' team until she graduated last year.

"I will keep my job as long as I'm asked," Kleiman pledged after the game. "It's what I can contribute to Judaism.

"I get from the kids…more than they get. They're so wonderful."