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2016-2017 GIRLS BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Quartet of area teams aim to stay near the top of respective leagues


 

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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

 

Unless there is a sudden turn of events from new players to their respective varsity basketball teams, the 2016-2017 girls season figures to be status quo from last season as far as who should again do well and who is still searching for some success. Cerritos High, Gahr High, Valley Christian High and Whitney High all advanced to the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section playoffs last season and are primed to contend for league titles. On the other hand, it might me another long season for Artesia High while John Glenn High and Norwalk High might flirt with a .500 overall mark, which could assure those teams of at least an at-large postseason bid.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

4-23 overall last season, 0-12 in the Suburban League, seventh place

Head coach: Shontya Pouncey (second full season in second stint, 8-44)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 25-105

Last time made the playoffs: 2012

STARTERS LOST: Zharia Simmons (9.7 points per game overall last season), Kennedy Williams (2.3 ppg.), JR Riley Woolf (3.5 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Samantha Cruz (3.1 ppg.), SR Denise Fuentes

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Cynthia Calderas (2.0 ppg.), SR Marisa Gracian, SR Valeria Lopez JR Cesilia Cabrera

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMER: JR Cassidy Valle-Marinas

After getting married last August, head coach Shontya Pouncey took virtually the entire season off and handed the coaching duties to Dan Galvan. The Pioneers struggled once again, especially in league were they went winless for the second time in four seasons and third in the last seven. But Artesia will have a big team in terms of numbers with 16 on varsity, 11 of which are seniors. Will it be enough for a program, which has had some issues on the defensive side, to get back to the playoffs?

“Coach Galvan and I have super, much respect and admiration for [coaching at Artesia],” Pouncey said. “He went through a lot with people missing practice and girls coming in and out. Fundraising was a travesty. He had to deal with so many more things that weren’t just basketball that I think a lot of those issues came to play into the season. It made it a lot harder for him and the girls who were here all the time.”

Artesia will have to find a new identity in the scoring department after the graduation of Zharia Simmons. While no returning player averaged more than 3.1 points per game last season, Pouncey sees senior Samantha Cruz as probably one of the team’s better shooters while senior Denise Fuentes has gotten so much stronger and her will to win is bigger than anybody’s on the team, according to the coach.

“Sam is a great overall player, period,” Pouncey said. “I think Sam is one of the kids at this school who actually wants to play at the next level. She came from the Philippines where they practice outside most of the time, and it was never in great conditions. I think she is a kid who battles and she’ll be good for us as far as bringing the ball up.”

Senior Marisa Gracian is probably the most improved returning player and will be a big part of how the Pioneers play defense while senior Valeria Lopez figures to be the best shooter of the big players on the team. Pouncey says that the scoring will have to be a ‘whole-hearted team effort’.

Since advancing to the quarterfinals in 2005, the Pioneers have played in the postseason four times and the 13 combined wins over the past four seasons are one more than what the team accumulated during the program’s last trip to the playoffs. For Artesia to get back to the playoffs, it will need to have at least a .500 overall record because cracking the top four in the Suburban League will be close to impossible.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work in basketball because obviously there’s 16 more spots [in each division than football],” Pouncey said. “You still have to be .500 and then it doesn’t matter if you’re fourth or fifth in your league so much. I think that’s somewhere we might be. We plan on winning a few league games. Hopefully we can win at least half of them, or a little under half of them. I think the way we may defend will help us.”

CERRITOS LADY DONS

17-11 overall last season, 10-2 in the Suburban League, second place, lost to Agoura 52-50 in the Division II-A second round playoffs

Head coach: Marcus Chinen (third season, 37-19)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 84-51

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Flora Arbas, Tatiana Fominyam (10.4 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Ifeoma Okoli (12.3 ppg.), SR Teresa Torres (5.4 ppg.), SR Cailey Vitug (8.0 ppg. in 20 games)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Bea Castrance, SR Bethany Huang, JR Tracy Nakamura, JR Kalea Trias, SO Hannah Carrol

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Allyson Hayakawa, SO Lindsay Fujihiro, SO Lexi Tamaki

It was another good season for Cerritos and head coach Marcus Chinen as the Lady Dons lost twice in Suburban League action, both to Mayfair High and by a combined six points. Cerritos has won at least 12 games five straight seasons and returns a good chunk of its team from a year ago.

“I think it was a good season; a growing season, especially for our juniors and seniors this year,” Chinen said. “It’s going to be tough to beat Mayfair. Size-wise, we don’t have the biggest post players on our team. We do the best that we can with what we get every year. I think this year, too, will be the same situation.”

The problem last season came in the month of December when injuries caused some key players to be sidelined, one of whom was senior Cailey Vitug. Now she’s healthy and with her and fellow seniors Ifeoma Okoli and Teresa Torres, plus junior Kalea Trias as solid starters, the Lady Dons are primed to be even better. Okoli and Trias will be the two bigs with sophomore Hannah Carrol as a possible backup. The one negative coming into this season is that Chinen didn’t have a chance to have a full fall team because of several players playing fall sports

“That was huge, not having her at the beginning of the season,” Chinen said of Vitug. “And I did think it affected the team in a way that I think we relied on her to bring the ball up [the court]. We relied on her to shoot and score when she can and look for the open person. She’s our primary ball handler when it comes down to later in the games. Just not having her out there, I think the chemistry was thrown off a little bit.”

Chinen added that the team learned to play without her and still was somewhat successful. But with her would have been a different story. Junior Tracy Nakamura is the most improved, according to Chinen. She figures to be in the starting lineup as she and Trias will pick up big minutes left behind by the graduated Flora Arbas and Tatiana Fominyam. Cerritos fell three points short of advancing to the quarterfinals and Chinen believes this season’s team can get farther.

“It’s in the past right now,” Chinen said of last season’s playoff loss. “It does sting. It’s always the ‘what if’s’. Again, it was the second year in a row that the team that passed us went to the finals. As coaches, we talk about it and for about a week, it was hard. I think we’ve moved and I think the girls are hungry right now because they want to go out and try to get another [league] championship.”

GAHR LADY GLADIATORS

12-14 overall last season, 5-5 in the San Gabriel Valley League, third place, lost to Sonora 61-15 in the Division III-AA first round playoffs

Head coach: Rob Godwin (second season, 12-14)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 78-62

Last time missed the playoffs: 2014

STARTERS LOST: None

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Lauren Magno, SR Alana Soltis (6.6 points per game last season), JR Naomi Ellis (6.6 ppg.), JR Nori Smith (2.8 ppg.), SO Hannah Kumiyama (5.8 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Vaesala Lesatele, SR Marceya Vernardo, JR Angelina Jacobe, JR Dezirae Smith

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Kimya Oliver, FR Clarissa Heredia

Gahr’s overall record last season is a bit misleading because the Lady Gladiators were dealt a major blow when leading scorer Angelica Soltis went down with an injury seven games into the season. That meant new head coach Rob Godwin was forced to revamp his lineup, which included three sophomores and a freshman most of the time.

“Coaching-wise, I believe it was everything I thought it was going to be,” Godwin said. “Our finish, I think we could have done a little better. But once we lost one of our major seniors, I think as a young group, we had no leadership. Going into this year, I definitely think we’re more prepared.

“It really threw us off big time because she was basically our captain on the floor,” Godwin added on the absence of Angelica Soltis. “We had no captain once we lost her and it showed that we were young. We started bickering about things we shouldn’t have been bickering about because there was no leader on the court.”

With Angelica Soltis sidelined, seniors Lauren Magno and Alana Soltis tried to pick up the slack along with the fast emergence of young players like juniors Naomi Ellis, Dezirae Smith, Nori Smith and sophomore Hannah Kumiyama. Any of those six players could possibly be among the starting five in any game this season, thus giving Gahr a much better opportunity to improve on its overall mark as well as its San Gabriel Valley League placing.

While Ellis and Kumiyama brought a big smile to Godwin’s face because of their performance given their youth, the one player who he sees as improving a lot is Alana Soltis. She, as Godwin put it, ‘fell off a little last year’ because she didn’t have her sister on the court for the majority of the season. He believes this will be a comeback year for her.

But keep an eye on junior Kimya Oliver, who brings a big, physical presence with her under the glass that Gahr lacked last season. Godwin says that Oliver will definitely be a starter with Magno as the first person off the bench. Of freshman Clarissa Heredia, who is a lefty, Godwin says she is the future of Gahr basketball.

After finishing in fourth place in each of the two seasons before Godwin took over, the Lady Gladiators moved up a spot. With such an experienced squad coming back, they could go as high as second place this season.

“I’m not going to make any predictions early,” Godwin said. “I made predictions last year and we had multiple injuries. But I’m looking for big things out of this team.”

JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES

4-22 overall last season, 3-9 in the Suburban League, sixth place

Head coach: Christina Hernandez (third season, 10-43)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 30-102

Last time made the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Savanna Aguilar (4.0 points per game last season in 15 games), Natalie Cardenas

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Saurianna Harrison (4.2 points per game last season), JR Karina Gomez (1.1 ppg.), JR Savannah Madrid (6.7 ppg.), JR Dalilah Mendoza (7.9 ppg.),

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Vanessa Rouse, JR Gloria Hernandez (2.4 ppg.), JR Kaylin Meno

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Chardonee Keith (transfer from Norwalk), SR Katherine Tanedo, SO Paola Ramirez, SO Berenice Santana, SO Jessica Valdez, FR Dominique Harrison

Head coach Christina Hernandez just couldn’t get a break last season. Three of her experienced players all missed a good chunk of December, in which the Lady Eagles played 14 games. Add to that the young lineup she had to put on the court, which consisted of four sophomores, and it’s easy to see why Glenn won only four games. The concern Hernandez had was if the team could be more competitive in league. Her goal this year is to pick up more wins and to be competitive in league as, in her words, Glenn is always rebuilding. Last season was the second time the program has finished 4-22 in the past three seasons.

“The first thing that would come to mind is I set separate goals for the team and the program I wanted to accomplish,” Hernandez said. “So the first year, my goal was [improve] overall wins. We got six and I wanted to be around six or eight that year and we met that goal. Last season, I was going to have a young team and I really wanted to give them a tougher preseason.”

So now, the Lady Eagles figure to be healthier now than at this point last season and will be paced by seniors Saurianna Harrison and Vanessa Rouse. Glenn could definitely use the height of Rouse under the glass. But the pleasant surprise, which could say a lot about the near future, came from juniors Gloria Hernandez, Savannah Madrid and Dalilah Mendoza. All three of them picked up the scoring that was left behind when Rouse and the graduated Natalie Cardenas were injured. The aforementioned returning players, plus juniors Karina Gomez and Kaylin Meno give the Lady Eagles a shot of moving up from the bottom of the Suburban League standings.

“We focus a lot on them individually on the court as far as skill set goes,” Hernandez said. “I’m really excited for them. This offseason, we really put more on them as far as what we expect from them, not just on the court but the responsibility of leadership. We had a young group [last season] and we didn’t have the leadership to pull them all together at the end of the day.”

Hernandez has set a personal goal is not to finish in sixth place and she hopes to get tough wins in the month of December. Glenn has been stuck in sixth place every season since the last time it was in the playoffs, which was 2011.

“I definitely have seen a change,” Hernandez said. “And it’s a lot of the same kids in the program. But I’ve seen the change through the offseason and the summer. The intensity has changed, the work ethic has changed. I can say they’re more competitive with each other in a good way. There’s a big difference.”

NORWALK LADY LANCERS

8-19 overall last season, 4-8 in the Suburban League, fifth place

Head coach: Ashley Baclaan (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 73-62

Last time made the playoffs: 2015

STARTERS LOST: Danielle Tate (13.3 points per game last season), Mele Valele (2.4 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Melanie Arias (2.4 ppg.), SR Destiny Hurtado (4.1 ppg.), SR Crystal Lambey (7.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR, Angie Aldana, JR Alyssandra Lopez, JR Lizbeth Ruiz (1.7 ppg.), JR Bianca Torres, SO Annie Valele

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Brenda Venegas, JR Fatima Gomez, JR Blanca Ortiz, SO Destiny Goodloe

Longtime assistant coach Ashley Baclaan gets her first head coaching job, and at a place where she played and graduated in 2005. Baclaan replaces Emily Osongco, who had coached the Lady Lancers for the past three seasons. Baclaan began coaching in 2006 and has coached at both of the lower levels while being an assistant for three different head coaches at Norwalk.

“It was good, it was fun, it was a learning experience,” Baclaan said of being an assistant. “Everything I think I’m going to bring as a head coach is everything that I’ve learned, even from me playing under [former Norwalk head coach] Babita [Singh].”

Last season was Norwalk’s worst campaign since going 7-19 in 2005-2006 and it ended a streak of eight straight seasons in which Norwalk had double digit victories. In each of those eight seasons, the Lady Lancers advanced to the postseason and included back to back 20-win seasons in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.

“I wouldn’t say it was fully disappointing,” Baclaan said of last season. “I think it was just really a lot of learning. With the bodies that we had and just learning how to make the girls mesh together. It was just new and different. But there was still some good out of it.”

For Norwalk to get back to the playoffs, someone has to fill the shoes of the graduated Danielle Tate as far as scoring goes. That could be senior Crystal Lambey, who averaged seven points a game. Outside of that, there wasn’t much to choose from on the offensive side last season. If anything, the Lady Lancers return seven seniors and juniors, plus sophomore Annie Valele.

“I don’t necessarily care of being on one person,” Baclaan said. “I encourage the girls to all be leaders to each other in their own way, because I want all of them to be able to produce something.”

Baclaan added that all of the returning starters have improved in a certain area of their own game and that the other returning players are improving as well and learning their roles and learning how to play together. Baclaan says she likes coaching defense in the sense of strategy, but also likes offense in the sense of creativity. As far as where Norwalk will finish in the league, it’s still up in the air.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Baclaan said. “I just look at it game by game; just go in and play and whatever happens in the end happens.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY CRUSADERS

16-12 overall last season, 4-4 in the Olympic League, third place, lost to Westridge 32-29 in the Division IV-A first round playoffs

Head coach: Dominic Freeman (third season, 28-26)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 47-86

Last time missed the playoffs: 2015

STARTERS LOST: Katy Feller (8.8 points per game last season), SO Lauren Crawford (5.0 ppg.),

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Cheyenne McKinnie (13.2 ppg.), SO Calla Anderson (4.1 ppg.), SO Ariel Gordon (7.5 ppg.),

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Sahana Oglesby, JR Jai’Lynn Parham

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: FR McKenna Bushong, FR Kira Smith

Another team that was built around more freshmen and sophomores was Valley Christian, where head coach Dominic Freeman started a trio of freshmen. The Lady Crusaders, who had nine players, turned a lot of heads when they started 14-6 overall, then 16-7 with a 4-1 mark in Olympic League action. But a late season tailspin ended any chance of a possible 20-win campaign. Still, it was V.C.’s best season since 2011 when that team finished 19-11, won the league and advanced to the semifinals.

“Last season felt like not too long ago,” Freeman said. “I still have a bad taste in my mouth on how we finished. But we did have a good start and it was just a really nice way to have a better season with trying to hopefully end on a better note for Katy [Feller] and [Elexis Carr], who were our seniors. Now we have two new seniors this year with Sahana [Oglesby] and Cheyenne [McKinnie] who hopefully can give them a better finish.”

The heart and soul of the Lady Crusaders will come from McKinnie, who has become the toughest player and the hardest worker on the team as opposed to when she first came to V.C., according to Freeman. She’s also become more vocal. But the emergence of sophomores Calla Anderson and Ariel Gordon give the Lady Crusaders a triple threat in the scoring department. Oglesby and junior Jai’Lynn Parham are the other returning players.

“We have other players who are going to contribute, but Cheyenne is definitely one of our main focal points that we feel like if she’s doing well, then we’re having a good game,” Freeman said.

Look for freshman Kira Smith to be a starting point guard and someone who will help the team a lot because, as Freeman says, it gets McKinnie off the ball so she can come off a lot of different screens and different actions.

“They came in and did a really nice job,” Freeman said of his young players last season. “We had to take their learning lickings and their growth and their ups and downs. I was optimistic that they would be able to come in and contribute. We’re excited that they’re going to come back and help us out this year.”

Freeman believes this season’s team can do a lot of damage, especially in league action. Don’t expect another late season slide, but instead a possible league title, which would be the program’s fifth since 2000.

”I think we can [do better],” Freeman said. “Our young pups are a year older. I felt like the run we had [in the first round], I think some of our girls felt entitled and didn’t realize the second go-around in league we had a bulls-eye on our back. Our expectations are higher and we’ve definitely been practicing with a chip on our shoulders and understand what we have here in this program. I feel very confident that we’ll improve in our league standings.”

WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS

12-11 overall last season, 8-4 in the Academy League, third place, lost to St. Anthony 66-25 in the Division IV-A first round

Head coach: Jeff Day (fifth season, 69-33)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 93-37

Last time missed the playoffs: 2010

STARTERS LOST: Heather Cook

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Nicole Lee (13.3 points per game in 19 games), SO Christine Hamakawa (9.2 ppg.), SO Kiana Sanchez (3.2 ppg.), SO Justine Wu (7.6 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Caitlin Cheung, JR Deja Forest, SO Valaree Villegas

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMER: FR Janelle Ho

Just like Gahr and Valley Christian, Whitney began for the future with several freshmen in its starting lineup. But injuries early last December cost the Lady Wildcats a few more wins. Still, head coach Jeff Day was impressed with the freshmen because they never doubted themselves and they never gave up, even in the playoff game, which was a 66-25 loss to St. Anthony High.

“We were young too,” Day said. “Forty percent of the team were freshmen; never played high school basketball before. They’re going to learn and they’re going to make mistakes. We didn’t play a super crazy schedule bit we didn’t play a small school schedule either. Half of our schedule was against schools [with enrollment of] 2,500 or more. We played up.”

This has the makings of a very interesting team because the Lady Wildcats will have only eight players on varsity. Day said there’s a big drop-off from eight to nine, but still feels confident his varsity members can get the job done. Senior Nicole Lee, who has been a superb heir apparent to former star Rachel Nagel, has the potential to score more than 15 points a game. But then there’s junior Caitlin Cheung, who played in the first four games before an injury cost her the rest of the season, and sophomores Christine Hamakawa, Kiana Sanchez and Justine Wu. Those five players could easily combine for at least 50 points a game.

“They know they have 80 more games together,” Day said of his sophomore class. “They want to be around. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never had enough girls around in the off time here to want to do extra stuff. It’s still a challenge with everything we have going on here. But we’re able to a little bit without overwhelming them. That’s kind of nice.”

Day says that Lee knows that she is the one, and will play the one. But she can also play the two or three. He added that all of the players have multiple positions that they know they have to play and because of that, Sanchez doesn’t have to worry as much. Junior Deja Forest will be counted on to be the leading rebounder. But she’ll have some company with the addition of freshman Janelle Ho. Cheung will play the five and will take Heather Cook’s spot and play roughly five minutes a quarter with Forest playing the other two or three minutes a quarter

The Academy League is in store for another interesting season as Whitney will battle with Oxford Academy and Sage Hill High for the top spot. All three teams are still young, which will make for some great games in the next few years. Whitney lost to Oxford Academy and Sage Hill by 10 and six points respectively in the second round of action last season. The Lady Wildcats also lost to Oxford Academy by three points in the first round on homecoming night.

“We can move up,” Day said. “Oxford is going to be tough. They went to state tournament. They’re the undefeated league champs. But the girls know they can play with Oxford because the first time [last season], we almost had them. We’re good with situational things, preparing for one game and getting ready for a team. Oxford is going to be a challenge.”

 

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