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2017-2018 GIRLS BASKETBALL PREVIEW : Valley Christian hopes experience will send team back to divisional finals

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

It was as good as a season one could expect from Valley Christian High, which advanced to the Division 4AA finals. Now the Lady Crusaders are looking for back to back trips to the finals since the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 seasons. Cerritos High hopes to stay at the top of the Suburban League again in its final season in that circuit while Whitney High says adieu to the Academy League.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

6-18 overall last season, 0-12 in the Suburban League, seventh place

Head coach: Shontya Pouncey (third full season, fourth overall 18-85)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 19-106

Last time made the playoffs: 2012

STARTERS LOST: SR Cesilia Cabrera (7.8 points per game in 15 games last season), Samantha Cruz (3.4 ppg), Taryn Davis (2.9 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING:SR Jessica Tibayan (3.5 ppg.), SR Cassidy Valle (10.5 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Jada Mouda

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Kim Servin, JR Kathy Gonzalez, JR Odalis Ramirez (transfer from Paramount High), SO Tina Labib

The ‘what could have been’ line will be flowing throughout the Artesia High program season as senior Cesilia Cabrera, who was the team’s best rebounder and defensive player, won’t be back. Still, head coach Shontya Pouncey is looking to be competitive and looking for growth as well as his younger players stepping up and all the guard play to be tougher. He says the focus is not the playoffs, but simply competing in every game that they’re in.

“A bunch did happen,” Pouncey said of last season. “The positives are the kids we have back are really about Artesia basketball. We lost one that was going to be a big loss but the kids who are here really worked hard and trained hard. We had a lot of different things going into this year, like the weight room was incorporated from spring until now. And then [there is] more of a college atmosphere as far as working out.”

The Pioneers now have had five straight seasons of single-digit victories and either a sixth or seventh place finish in league. Without Cabrera, Artesia will look to seniors Jessica Tibayan and Cassidy Valley to take control of the team. For the Pioneers to be in a lot of games, both will have to score more than they did last season, maybe double their scoring production.

“Cassidy makes the ship go,” Pouncey said. “Without her, obviously we don’t move. I’m not going to say the sun rises and falls on her. But she is by our best player, easily hands down. She’s very skilled and we got her pretty good. Now, I think she’s a lot better but time will tell with her playing every minute of a game.”

The team will be very small in terms of numbers. Senior Jada Mouda, the only other returner, was sidelined with injuries some of spring ball, some of summer ball and half of fall camp. Pouncey is hoping she can give the team quality minutes. Junior Kathy Gonzalez is considered as the X-factor and the season will go as she goes.

“We have a team of eight, we have to keep the injuries low and we have to try to rotate bodies as much as possible,” Pouncey said. “Limiting, obviously minutes for everybody, kind of balances it out.”

CERRITOS LADY DONS

17-10 overall last season, 11-1 in the Suburban League, co-league champions, lost to Thousand Oaks 44-42 in the Division 3AA second round playoffs

Head coach: Marcus Chinen (fourth season, 54-29)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 89-46

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Ifeoma Okoli (9.7 points per game last season), Teresa Torres (6.2 ppg.), Cailey Vitug (11.6 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Tracy Nakamura (5.2 ppg.), JR Lindsay Fujihiro (6.5 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Allyson Hayakawa, SR Kalea Trias (3.1 ppg.), JR Hannah Carroll, JR Alyxe Tamaki

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Melody Fu, JR Cindy Hantragoon, JR Iris Lee, JR Jenna Ono, SO Siera Barnett, SO Alyson Chang, SO Kamsi Okere, SO Kari Orr, SO Minh-Thy Vo

For the second time in three seasons, Cerritos head coach Marcus Chinen had a team win at least a share of the Suburban League crown. A basket her or a basket there and the Lady Dons are in the quarterfinals for the second time in four seasons.

“It was a good year for us,” Chinen said. “I wish we could have gone farther in the playoffs. We had a really good game against Mayfair the first time around. The second time around it was another good game; an exciting game. I think that’s what it’s all about-the competition. It’s fun going up against Mayfair or even the other teams in our league for a league title.”

With Chinen entering his fourth season, he doesn’t have any holdovers from the previous regime, under the tutelage of Ariel Adams. But, what he does have is an experienced group that can chase down Mayfair, as always, and hopefully winning league outright in the final season for the Lady Dons as Suburban League members.

“It’s exciting,” Chinen said. “We came in and taught them half court offenses and what not. But pretty much the run and gun thing is what I would like to do. What Ariel did well with [her players], we’ve tried to continue with it. Now that it’s a new group, or if you want to say, our own, I think our whole style can change completely.”

Senior Tracy Nakamura will be called on to do a lot more, maybe run the point, maybe run the two-guard or a combination of both, according to Chinen. The same goes for junior Lindsay Fujihiro as she and Nakamura should average double digits in scoring. Look for senior Kalea Trias to be a major force on the glass despite Cerritos not being tall this season. Cerritos will have a good mix of seniors and underclassmen, which means the cupboard shouldn’t be empty after this season.

“It’s going to be a different group,” Chinen said. “We’re going to call upon them to be our leaders, maybe if they don’t start, at least be the leaders off the court because they’re the ones with varsity experience.

“That’s going to be a challenge,” he later said of returning two starters. “We’re going to have to see what we can get out of our newcomers as well as our returners. We’re going to look for Hannah Carroll; hopefully she can score a few points for us. Maybe on defense she can steal a ball and get a lay-up. We’re really working with her on her shot.”

The Lady Dons will again have a very challenging December schedule, including a return trip to the Marina/Edison Tournament and a single game at North Torrance High. The league title could be on the line on Feb. 8 at Mayfair High, the last Suburban League game for Cerritos, which has won four of them since moving over from the Mission Valley League.

“It’s going to be really sad because I think the league that we have right now is very competitive and helps us out,” Chinen said. “I’m not going to say that the new league is going to be worse than what we’re doing right now. I think the new league is going to be pretty competitive and I’m hoping we’ll be really competitive.”

GAHR LADY GLADIATORS

15-12 overall last season, 5-5 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for third place, lost to Pacifica/Oxnard 51-49 in the Division 3AA second round playoffs

Head coach: Rob Godwin (third season, 27-26)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 73-65

Last time missed the playoffs: 2014

STARTERS LOST: JR Hannah Kumiyama (4.4 points per game last season, transferred to South Carolina), Alana Soltis (7.8 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Naomi Ellis (12.1 ppg.), SR Kimya Oliver (5.1 ppg.), SR Dezirae Smith (5.2 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Angelina Jacobe, SR Nori Smith, SO Clarissa Heredia

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Kaylynn Mabin, JR Claindaire Francisco, SO Kayla Miyake, SO De’aja Newburn

Gahr High had another decent season, the fourth straight campaign it has either been three games above or below .500. Head coach Rob Godwin said the loss to Pacifica High from Oxnard in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section playoffs brought the team together rather than separate them. The girls understood that they had to work harder to be successful once they get to the playoffs.

“Overall last season, I felt we could have done a little better moving towards the league part of the season,” he said. “But I was proud of the girls. We worked hard, we got to where we wanted to, which was the playoffs. I think [the playoff loss] was a learning experience for some of the other girls moving on to the second round. So now they got to see last year what kind of time and work you have to put in practice to be a successful team.”

This season, the Lady Gladiators are solid with half a dozen returning players, all of whom got extensive playing time, and have more than half of their team as seniors. Seniors Naomi Ellis, Kimya Oliver and Dezirae Smith have the potential to average at least 10 points a game and in fact, are expectations set forth by Godwin. He says the coaching staff expects each one of those girls to be able to produce offensively this season.”

“We’re looking for a big year out of all three of those girls,” Godwin said. “I believe they know what we expect out of them They’re working hard and they’re all leaders right now in practice trying to get the younger girls up to speed.”

Dezirae Smith and senior Nori Smith are two of the best defenders on the court while Godwin is expecting a lot out of sophomore Clarissa Heredia. He’s also looking for junior newcomer Claindaire Francisco to give Gahr a spark on defense while another varsity rookie, De’aja Newburn, could be a force in the rebounding area.

The Lady Gladiators will be battle tested as they will participate in the Brea Olinda Tournament to begin the season and will also play in the Southern California Holiday Classic in San Diego at the end of December.

“I just wanted to actually step up the competition so it can prepare us for league,” Godwin said. “I went out on a limb and put us in a lot more harder tournaments than we’ve done in the last few years.”

JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES

3-22 overall last season, 2-10 in the Suburban League, sixth place

Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 25-105

Last time made the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Sauriyanna Harrison (3.2 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING:SR Dalilah Mendoza (8.9 ppg.), SR Kaylin Meno (1.8 ppg.), JR Berenice Santana, SO Dominique Harrison (3.4 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Paola Ramirez (2.4 ppg.), JR Jessica Valdez

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Denise Cardenas, JR Mariah Chavez, SO Mercedes Rubi

It’s been a rough go for John Glenn High, which has finished in sixth place in league for six straight seasons. Former Whitney High boys coach and last season’s Glenn’s boys coach will take over for Christina Hernandez as the school’s fourth girls head coach in the past 20 seasons.

“We’re excited as a staff to be working with the girls,” Guerrero said. “They’re some great kids that are hungry to learn. We’ve had a few fall games together which I was pleasantly surprised of how hard they played. Effort shouldn’t be an issue this season.”

Guerrero said he watched the Lady Eagles play last season even though they looked like they weren’t tapping into their full potential. Since he took over for Hernandez, he came in with an open mind giving the girls a chance to make a first impression on the coaches.

Even though the Lady Eagles have struggled for the past six seasons, they have experience on their side for the new campaign. Four starters return with senior Dalilah Mendoza potentially scoring 10-15 points a game and according to Guerrero, is a tough presence on the court. As far as the rest of the returning starters, Guerrero says senior Kaylin Meno has developed her game a bit and is expected to be more of a leader on the court. Junior Berenice Santana will help a lot on the defensive side and has a knack for rebounding while sophomore Dominique Harrison has put some time into her game and is noticeably aggressive on the court.

Juniors Paola Ramirez and Jessica Valdez are the other returning players with the former having the energy and stamina to carry the team if she needs to.

The top three newcomers will be juniors Denise Cardenas and Mariah Chavez and sophomore Mercedes Rubi. Guerrero says Cardenas adds depth to their post position and is looking to move her to the perimeter to make her a multiple threat. Chavez adds hustle and toughness to the team and will help Glenn’s defensive game while Rubi, new to the school, has experience playing basketball.

The Lady Eagles don’t figure to be in the playoff mix this season, their last in the Suburban League, but if anything, the underclassmen can continue to get stronger and get valuable minutes for when the team moves into the 605 League next season.

“They have all the intangibles to make a run at league title,” Guerrero said. “They just have to believe in the team. My expectations for this team is whenever we are on the floor, we have to always be competing.”

NORWALK LADY LANCERS

11-13 overall last season, 5-7 in the Suburban League, tied for fourth place

Head coach: Ashley Baclaan (second season, 11-13)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 64-67

Last time made the playoffs: 2015

STARTERS LOST: Melanie Arias (4.8 points per game last season), Destiny Hurtado (4.6 ppg.), Crystal Lambey (11.8 ppg.), SR Alyssandra Lopez (3.0 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Bjanka Torres (7.1 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Angie Aldana (6.9 ppg.), SR Fatima Gomez, SR Blanca Ortiz, SR Lizbeth Ruiz, JR Destiny Goodloe, JR Annie Valele

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Priscilla Martinez, JR Alexis Molina, FR Brianna Flores, FR Ariel Garate, FR Leilani Torres

For the longest time, Norwalk High was the laughing stock of the Suburban League, finishing at or near the bottom for several seasons. Then the Lady Lancers made eight straight trips to the playoffs. Now, the program has been absence from the postseason for two seasons. However, head coach Ashley Baclaan is very optimistic that her team can finish in the top four in the circuit and get back to the playoffs.

“Last season was pretty good,” Baclaan said. “I think we had a lot of games that showed great teamwork and growth. I think especially towards the end, they started to understand what they needed to do individually in order to make it work as a team setting.”

One thing going against Norwalk is the fact that senior Bjanka Torres is the lone returning starter. However, the team returns six other plays and all of them got extensive playing time. Because of that, most of the other returning players can be starters at any time. Torres figures to be the top player and a double-digit scorer but look for senior Angie Aldana to also score more than 10 points a game.

“She’s a senior guard and even though it’s technically only one returning starter, I think a lot of the players who came off the bench last year were just as much in that type of [starting] position,” Baclaan said of Torres. “I just try making it to where [the returners] just understand opportunities and just capitalizing and trying to be efficient as possible, whether it’s seconds to minutes that they get,” Baclaan said. “I think that’s just the way it has to work in order for us to compete.”

Lately, the Lady Lancers have been a middle of the road team in league where they have beaten the teams they should and lose to the teams that are solid locks for the playoffs. Experience should give the team an edge in possibly cracking the top three and if so, get back to the playoffs.

“I hope so,” Baclaan said of getting to the playoffs. “I always hope we can. It’s not so much like it’s a bitterness or anything. That’s just what happened for our squad. That’ s where you just look back at some of the games where it’s like, ah, you had it at some point or you could have had it.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY CRUSADERS

22-10 overall last season, 5-3 in the Olympic League, second place, lost to Village Christian 49-29 in the Division 4AA finals

Head coach: Dominic Freeman (fourth season, 50-36)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 62-77

Last time missed the playoffs: 2015

STARTERS LOST: Cheyenne McKinnie (16.6 points per game last season), Sahana Oglesby (6.0 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: JR Calla Anderson (7.5 ppg.), JR Ariel Gordon (6.3 ppg.), SO Kira Smith (4.6 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Janelle Basic, SR Victoria Coloruotolo, SR Jai’Lynn Parham, JR Abby Leffler, JR Kiara Paul, SO McKenna Bushong

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: FR Faith Boss, FR Jordan Ibarra

Before last season, the last time Valley Christian advanced to the divisional finals, the team won 24 games. The 20-win mark seems to be the benchmark for a possible trip to the finals and the Lady Crusaders did that last season. A very strong December paved the way for a good, not great, Olympic League season and obviously a superb playoff run.

“Other than beating Village, that would have been nice,” said head coach Dominic Freeman. “We beat them once, but we didn’t beat them when it counted. I would say, reflecting back, what a tremendous season. The girls really put so much work and effort into their craft and to get to that point and that far…I think it was more fun just how we got there and the journey as far as the travelling and the extra days of practice.”

V.C. is still young but very much experienced with three returning starters. Yes, the Lady Crusaders lose leading scorer Cheyenne McKinnie. But juniors Calla Anderson and Ariel Gordon and sophomore Kira Smith all have the potential to exceed the scoring output from McKinnie alone.

“It definitely hurts us when you lose two key starters,” Freeman said. “Obviously with Cheyenne and her firepower that she brought and her intensity and Sahana with her growth that she brought in…those three years that she played with me. But those three returners-Calla, Ariel and Kira, I saw another step in their maturity level between Calla and Ariel. They’ve done just a tremendous job in helping with their leadership this year. So, you mix in maturity and growth and man, it’s going to be really special.”

In addition to the returning starters, the Lady Crusaders return five players, most of whom got extensive minutes last season, plus junior Abby Leffler, who was called up for the playoff run and performed quite well. The Lady Crusaders are primed for several more successful seasons due to the diversity of its personnel. A return trip to the championship game is definitely not out of the realm.

“It’s made my job easier this year,” Freeman said. “The girls will tell you, I haven’t screamed at them once all summer and fall and we’ve given them more days off than you can imagine. They’ve worked so tirelessly. When you have that corps group coming back and they know what to expect, it’s a lot easier.”

WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS

15-12 overall last season, 6-6 in the Academy League, fifth place, lost to Knight 44-40 in the Division 4A Quarterfinals

Head coach: Jeff Day (sixth season, 84-45)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 84-45

Last time missed the playoffs: 2010

STARTERS LOST: Nicole Lee (12.1 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Caitlin Cheung, JR Christine Hamakawa (8.1 ppg.), JR Kiana Sanchez (3.4 ppg.), JR Justine Wu (6.8 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Deja Forest, SR Eirene Sebastian, JR Joanna Macaraeg, JR Valaree Villegas, SO Janelle Ho (3.0 ppg.)

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: FR Kim Hosada, FR Julianna Lee, FR Makenna Yokoyama

Four times in the past six seasons, including three under head coach Jeff Day, Whitney High has reached the quarterfinals before seeing its season come to an end. But the Lady Wildcats have also combined to go 38-36 in the past three seasons. The two questions for this season will be can Whitney be better in the regular season and if they are, can they finally advance one step closer to a possible date in the championship game?

“It’s been my M.O.”, Day said. “We’re always a little above .500, we play a tough schedule. I think our December helped us in league. Every team ahead of us in our league was ranked at one time or another in the top four in their division. We gave Oxford [Academy] two good games and once again, we have to beat them. We split with Crean Lutheran; Crean Lutheran goes on and makes it two wins away from the state finals in their division. Sage Hill is the only one who has had our number the last three or four years.”

From 2010-2014, the Lady Wildcats were dominant because of Rachel Nagel. The past four seasons, it was the Nicole Lee show. Now, the team will have find a way to establish some offensive consistency and with four starters coming back, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Junior Christiane Hamakawa is the closest to being a vocal leader on the court, according to Day. But as the shortest player on the court, she’s probably the team’s best perimeter shooter.

Whitney will have more depth this season, but Day predicts the scoring should be about the same, which is in the low 40s.

“With Nicole, I didn’t have a lot of people around her,” Day said. “She basically was the only girl in her class. I have [nine] returners who have multiple years of varsity experience, primarily as far as playing time in my junior class. And then I have my two bigs who are seniors.”

Seniors Caitlin Cheung and Deja Forest will complement each other and will sub each other out while junior Justine Wu and sophomore Janelle Ho could be the big surprises this season. One positive for the program is the fact that it had more girls show up in the summer and they played about the same amount of games but did more done together as a team than ever before, and Day said that was way beyond where he has ever been before while at Whitney.

“I think Christine and Justine…their numbers are going to go up a little bit I think,” Day said. “And then I’m looking for Janelle to be a bigger part of the offense.”

The Lady Wildcats will be put to the test early as they will play 14 games in 20 days from the first of their San Marino Tournament games to the last of their Valley Christian Tournament games. Then, Whitney won’t play from Dec. 18 until Jan. 3. This will also be the final season of the Academy League with Feb. 8 at home against St. Margaret’s High the final league contest.

“I liked that it was all pretty much, with the exception of Crean growing and growing and growing, small schools,” Day said. “I’m going to miss that because now, we’re going in with the big Cerritos and schools that are going to be at least one and half to two times our size. As a basketball coach, when I found out, I was unhappy as far as the basketball part of it. I would rather have stayed with the league we were in.”

 

 

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