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2019-2020 GIRLS BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Cerritos aims for league crown while Valley Christian hopes to rebound with familiar face

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Last season, Oxford Academy dominated the 605 League just like it had done the previous few seasons in the Academy League. Now, Cerritos High is primed to claim the league crown this season while Artesia High hopes not to have another disappointing January and February. Gahr High and John Glenn High are looking for better campaigns while Valley Christian High and Whitney High usher in new head coaches.

ARTESIA LADY PIONEERS

12-16 overall last season, 0-10 in the 605 League, sixth place

Head coach: Shonyta Pouncey (fifth full season, sixth overall, 38-117)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 35-94

Last time made the playoffs: 2012

STARTERS LOST: Janet Briseno (4.1 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Seira Roberts (5.0 ppg.), JR Mariah Jarnet (6.2 ppg.), SO Sydnee McKie (9.8 ppg.), SO Dayzhia Young (3.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Priscilla Robles

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SO Sha’mira Barnes SO Esja Shriver, FR Samerika Young

Last season, Artesia was looking pretty good entering league action, boasting a 12-6 record and needing at least two victories to become eligible for an at-large spot in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs. But the Lady Pioneers failed to win a game in league and missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season. Head coach Shonyta Pouncey cites missing one of the team’s better players in the late December MaxPreps tournament in the Bay Area as to the beginning of the downfall. 

But Artesia returns four starters and unlike last season when they lacked game experience and basketball IQ, according to Pouncey, as well as anyone who has travel ball experience, the team is eager to put last season behind them and focus on the present.

“Any coach would be excited to have four starters back, but the spring and summer was heavy, and some have been hurt and some [are] hurt right now,” Pouncey said. “What I can say about all of them is they trained hard and everything we revamped in our program they were good with. The offense is different. Defense and weight room and running also is different. Once they all get healthy again, we will be pretty solid.”

Sophomore Sydnee McKie was the heart and soul last season as a freshman and could score at least close to 15 points a game. The other three returning starters were sidelined in the team’s opener but look for senior Seira Roberts and junior Mariah Jarnet possibly approaching 10 points a game.

The Lady Pioneers will field a very young team that consists of five sophomores and two freshmen. Roberts is the lone senior, so the experience gained by the young players should be favorable for the next year or two. Sophomore Esja Shriver was the most valuable player on last season’s junior varsity team that went 18-5.

“I’m excited about this season,” Pouncey said. “When we get everyone back, we will be better. Out the gate, however, we are better than we have ever been in my years here. It’s all because of the last two teams we had. They started the change of be better and do better. The future does look bright.”

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CERRITOS LADY DONS

19-11 overall last season, 7-3 in the 605 League, 2ndplace, lost to Cathedral City 64-52 in the Division 3AA quarterfinals

Head coach: Marcus Chinen (sixth season, 97-45)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 97-45

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Lindsay Fujihiro (8.1 points per game last season), Iris Lee (6.6. ppg.), Alyxe Tamaki (5.7 ppg.), SO Halyne Buycks (4.8 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Kari Orr

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Siera Barnett, SR Alyson Chang, SR Alyssa Saragumba, SR Minh-Thy Vo (10.2 ppg. in 2017-2018 season), SO Amara Hizon

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Mekaella Morante, SO Catherine Ishii, SO Madhuri Suresh, SO Rachel Tucker, SO Jasmine Uy

Short of winning the inaugural 605 League title, it was another stellar season for Cerritos, which advanced to the quarterfinals. Head coach Marcus Chinen said the team could have been in a few more battles, but also could have had a couple of more losses and added he didn’t know what to expect from Pioneer High. Moving forward, he doesn’t know what the league is going to look like this season. 

“Competition-wise, it was great,” Chinen said. “We knew that it was going to be a competitive league with the top four teams. You don’t want to ever count out the teams that struggle or what not because on a good day, they’re going to come out and they’ll get you. It’s a good league and we look forward to being successful this coming year.”

The Lady Dons will gladly welcome the return of senior Minh-Thy Vo, a former Suburban League MVP who tore her right ACL prior to last season and did not play a game. She had reconstructive surgery this past May and Chinen says she is close to 100 percent but has to get back to basketball into shape.

“Minh-Thy is a great re-addition to our team and we’ll see what she can do,” Chinen said. “Even though this year we may not ask for her to score a lot, we may ask her to do a lot of other things defensively. Just having her back on the court changes a lot. She brings a lot of energy; the girls rely on her [and] the girls look up to her. We’re excited to have her back and I think she’s excited to be back on the court.”

The Lady Dons return just one starter from last season’s team-senior Kari Orr, whom Chinen says will bring a lot of defensive energy to the team and wants to turn into a better point guard so she can distribute the ball. One major loss for Cerritos is senior Kamsi Okere, who tore her ACL and MCL and is gone for the season. Without Okere, Cerritos loses that middle and rebounding presence.

Despite losing Okere, Cerritos returns a lot of experience with four other players, including sophomore Amara Hizon, who could be one to keep an eye on, especially with a lot of seniors on the team.

“I think Amara is going to have to step up,” Chinen said. “We told her we don’t want her to put a lot of pressure on her, and she put a lot of pressure on her during the summertime.”

Chinen says that on paper, they’re going to struggle in the very beginning. But once the girls get used to playing with each other, they’ll be fine in the end. He added that he will take going to the second round of the playoffs as a learning experience but would like to go farther and he doesn’t know where his team will land in the league standings, but says if they play their game, they will be very competitive with Oxford Academy.

“I think we’re competitive all the way through,” Chinen said. “That [playoff] game that we had to travel far away could have went either way in the very beginning. Then towards the end, they hit some key shots and we didn’t hit some shots. They rebounded well and we lacked that a little bit and we had a couple of turnovers here and there.”

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GAHR LADY GLADIATORS

6-21 overall last season, 2-8 in the San Gabriel Valley League, 5thplace

Head coach: Darrell Gillcrese (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 56-75

Last time made the playoffs: 2017

STARTERS LOST: Claindaire Francisco (4.6 points per game last season), SR De’aja Newburn (6.0 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Jasmine Ford, SR Clarissa Heredia (17.1 ppg.), SR Kayla Miyake (10.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Mia Magno, SR Leiya Samone, SO Cha’nai Richard

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: FR Brya Arroyo, FR Kameryn Mitchell, FR Alyssa Miyake, FR Lauryn Teramoto

Last season, Darrell Gillcrese was on the coaching staff as Nelson Herrera was the head coach. Now, Gillcrese takes over a struggling program hoping to find its winning ways again. Gillcrese has been with the Gahr program for three seasons and says the team was a little undermanned last season.

“We ran with nine varsity players last year,” he said. “Our program wasn’t as healthy. Obviously, this year, overall, we are super healthy. We have three levels this year. For the last three years plus probably a couple of years prior to me coming here, we only had two levels. So, we have kids who are showing an interest in playing basketball. This year, I think we have an opportunity to show a better product to our league as well as some of our competitors. So, we’re excited about that.”

The Lady Gladiators should be better with the return of senior starters Clarissa Heredia and Kayla Miyake, who combined for over half of the team’s scoring. Gillcrese says that Heredia has improved and worked hard to improve her game and anticipates her to be better than she was last season. As far as Miyake, a three-point specialist, Gillcrese says that she has been on the watch list as being one of the best defensive players and thinks she’s going to show it this season.

The experience continues with seniors Mia Magno and Leiya Samone and sophomore Cha’nai Richard. However, of the six returning players, only Heredia played significant minutes before last season. The Lady Gladiators will carry 16 on varsity and Gillcrese predicts that freshmen guards Brya Arroyo and Lauryn Teramoto are the future of Gahr. The team may lack in height, but the first-year head coach says Arroyo and Teramoto can play at a high level.

Gillcrese isn’t ready to tip his hat too early as far as rounding out his starting five but says the team will play fast and in transition this year and everyone will play. He’s looking to use 11 to 12 seconds off the shot clock to score. And, while Lynwood High has been the queen of the San Gabriel Valley League for over two decades, Gahr hopes that it can compete for as high as second place in the standings.

“I think this year is the year that we move a little bit closer,” Gillcrese said. “Last year, there was a lot of change with the previous head coach. I do things a little bit different and now this year, I’ve actually been able to be the [head] coach and run the program the way that I would like it to be run. We’re going to be a tough team.”

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JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES

8-20 overall last season, 2-8 in the 605 League, fifth place

Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (third season, 19-35)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 34-100

Last time made the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Denise Cardenas (5.2 points per game last season), 

STARTERS RETURNING:SR Dominique Harrison (8.4 ppg.), SR Perla Santana (3.1 ppg.), JR Cynthia Almanzar (5.1 ppg.), JR Karina Flores (2.3 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Ashley Sanchez, JR Priscilla Cardenas, JR Kei’ana Hood

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Jeanette Mendez, SR Leilany Mosqueda, SR Alexis Nolasco, JR Reyna Perez, SO Sara Mendoza, SO Makayla Moore

It was another long season for John Glenn and head coach Ruben Guerrero, who says that the team had the potential to win 12 or 13 games but fell short of their expectations. Building the right team chemistry was a big issue and Guerrero says he saw that early on but continues to remain positive to get past that obstacle. One strength for Glenn is the return of four starters along with four other players.

“All of them understand their roles and are continually working to maintain a positive position with each other so last year’s obstacles will not be this year’s downfall,” Guerrero said. 

Seniors Jeanette Mendez, Leilany Mosqueda and Alexis Nolasco and sophomore Malayla Moore are all transfers and came into the program willing to work hard and brought in their own experiences from their previous schools to help build a positive environment, according to Guerrero. 

“We have a great group of girls that believe that they are that team we need them to be,” he added. “If they believe in what we are doing, if they believe in the coaching, if they believe in each other and believe in our culture, every goal is possible.”

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NORWALK LADY LANCERS

14-12 overall last season, 6-3 in the Suburban League, second place, lost to Hillcrest High 54-51 in the Division 4A first round playoffs

Head coach: Ashley Baclaan (fourth season, 38-37)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 61-69

Last time missed the playoffs: 2017

STARTERS LOST: Idaly Gonzalez (2.8 points per game last season, Destiny Goodloe (12.9 ppg.), Priscilla Martinez (7.4 ppg.), Annie Valele (6.4 ppg.) 

STARTERS RETURNING: JR Brianna Flores (7.8 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Melanie Camarena, SR Joana Galan, SR Nya Johnson, SR Katelyn Napier, SR Clarissa Perez, JR Ariel Garate

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Alexandria Delara, SR Kelly Lizama, SR Crystal Ramires, JR Brianna Guzman, JR Arlene Lopez, Denise Cortez, Katrina Slaughter

Last season, in the revamped Suburban League, Norwalk High finished in second place to league-leading Mayfair High. The Lady Lancers, however, might find a tougher challenge to repeat that, or even challenge Mayfair for the top spot as the team returns one starter-junior Brianna Flores-and not a lot of scoring after that. Head coach Ashley Baclaan said the “new” Suburban League didn’t hurt or help the Lady Lancers and said all the teams are still very much competitive with one another. She added that it ‘was a bummer though, to have to breakup after being together so long’.

As far as this season, Baclaan is looking for Flores to have a bigger role in terms of leadership and helping build the new core. The Lady Lancers return a total of seven players, all of whom have improved in their own skills and roles to the team with the newcomers to varsity helping to bring speed and defense, Baclaan said. 

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VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY DEFENDERS

8-19 overall last season, 2-6 in the Olympic League, fifth place

Head coach: Gene Bras (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 67-72

Last time made the playoffs: 2017

STARTERS LOST: Ariel Gordon (7.9 points per game last season in 17 games), Kiara Paul (2.7 ppg. in 17 games), SR Kira Smith (3.9 ppg. in 17 games, transferred to St. Anthony High)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR McKenna Bushong (5.6 ppg. in 17 games), JR Jordan Ebalo (8.9 ppg. in 17 games)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Kailani Kane, SR Olivia Vande Vegte, SO Makani Kane

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Faith Boss, SO Gillian Doplemore, SO Karon Warren

After one season with Mario Neely as head coach, former assistant Gene Bras takes over as the top man running the program. Bras had helped with the boys varsity team for several seasons, then was on the coaching staff with the girls last season and enjoyed that experience. “It’s kind of a combination of things; it always is,” Bras said. “It’s never one thing. We had a really tough tournament schedule, so that was kind of difficult in terms of maybe it kind of hurt their confidence early on. But I felt like by the time the league season ended…both of our wins were in the second round and we played some teams pretty competitive. We kind of peaked a little too late.”

Although the Lady Defenders struggled last season, the team should be much improved and it starts with senior McKenna Bushong and junior Jordan Ebalo, both of whom are returning starters who have the potential to score in double figures.

“She is really skilled and is just the nicest kid in the world,” Bras said of Ebalo. “She works hard, has a good attitude and is a good teammate. The one thing that I’m kind of pushing her [on] a little bit is she probably needs to be a little more selfish. Sometimes [she’s] our best option for shooting and she’s sometimes thinking about her teammates first.”

Bras said he might try to move her off the point a little bit and put other guards there. In fact, he says the team has good guard experience and the team played well in the Artesia League over the summer. 

“I think our guard play and the experience there is definitely a plus,” he continued. “Another big plus is we have Faith Boss back from an ACL injury. She missed her first two years and she has really good instincts for the game and is a really good shooter. I think our quickness, our ball handling and our shooting ability will be our strengths this year.”

Bras says he believes the Lady Defenders are better than the 8-19 performance of last season but is not one for making predictions as far as winning league or finishing in the top three in the Olympic League. He just wants the team to simply get better each day and see where the team is at. 

“I think, getting back to last year, I don’t think we really knew our identity,” Bras said. “I feel like we were going into the season kind of not knowing who we are and what kind of team we were going to be. When we figured out who we were, the season was kind of winding down.”

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WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS

20-10 overall last season, 5-5 in the 605 League, fourth place, lost to Oak Park High 49-40 in the Division 4AA quarterfinals

Head coach: Myron Jacobs (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 75-57

Last time missed the playoffs: 2010

STARTERS LOST: Christine Hamakawa (6.7 points per game last season), Justine Wu (9.9 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Janelle Ho (6.6 ppg.), JR Kim Hosoda (8.8 ppg.), JR Julianna Lee (5.5 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SO Eliana Amanuel

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Megan Hur, SR Michelle Kang, FR Kayla Hamakawa, FR Layla Lacorte, FR Rachel Lee, FR Rachel Song

Another head coach who is making his debut with a new team is Myron Jacobs, who replaces Rachel Nagle. Jacobs coached at Buena Park High the past two seasons and turned a struggling program to 15 wins last season. Jacobs said he didn’t know if he would coach because he has a daughter. He said he wanted to coach the Whitney boys team two years ago when that position became available but did not get that opportunity.

“I knew the past three seasons, they were pretty good,” Jacobs said of the Whitney program. “I know they had a returning core that played all together since their freshmen year. So, I knew that they definitely had something going. It was missing a big, but their guard play was very strong.

“Honestly, when I got here, they welcomed me with open arms,” Jacobs later said. “They were willing to learn a whole new system. Last year, there was ‘run a lot of set sets on offense’. This year, it’s a lot of read react; a lot of motion. I think this year is going to be a great year because not only do I have four returners, but they come with the experience that it takes to get to the playoffs. They also have experience from the first round to get to the second round. So, that helps me out as well.”

The Lady Wildcats will be very young this season with just one returning senior and a slew of freshmen. But, leading the scoring attack will be senior Janelle Ho and junior Kim Hosoda, both of whom can potentially reach double figures in scoring.

“Well, I’m going to start with Kim,” Jacobs said. “She has exceptional basketball IQ and is a very smart person on the floor. I can tell you this, when she’s on the floor, she’s like a bulldog. She loves to fight for every possession. She loves to not only be a captain but motivate her teammates.”

As far as the young newcomers, freshman Layla Lacorte is shooting guard whom Jacobs had very high potential and expectations for her. He says she can shoot the ball and averaged 11 points a game during the summer.

Freshman Kayla Hamakawa can control the pace like her older sister Christine did and can shoot from the inside whereas Christine was more of an outside shooter. The younger Hamakawa is more of a pass person first, then shoot later.

Finally, freshman Rachel Song is good on the defensive side but is coming around on offense.

“My initial plan was to basically use the talented freshmen and have them learn from the veterans,” Jacobs said. “If you look at the [roster], I’m really guard-heavy; I really don’t have a big, but Eliana has gotten better. In the summer, she was averaging 10 [points] and 10 [rebounds], and that’s legit. But I really think my freshmen will hold the team together.as far as being able to not only learn the system but grow together as the years come.”

Jacobs said he expects to get to the quarterfinals and can’t comment on Cerritos and Oxford Academy because he’s new to the 605 League.

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