In this second installment of annual series about important stops on the girls hoops summer circuit, we get the inside scoop why the Cal Stars club team that features numerous Cal-Hi Sports all-state players may be the best in the nation. The Nike Elite team not only cruised in the top division at the annual End of the Trail tourney in Oregon, but ended up beating the younger girls from Cal Stars in the final. The Orinda Magic also did well in Oregon with a consolation title.
Note: Thanks to the Orinda Magic club team, West Coast Jamboree and CalStars club team for supporting analyst Harold Abend in his annual Girls of Summer series of stops at many of California leading summer tournaments. Appreciation also goes out to the Mission Valley Sheraton in San Diego, a great place to stay in the heart of the San Diego area’s top attractions.
After dominating the field last April at the prestigious Boo Williams tournament in Virginia, the Cal Stars Nike Elite team has established itself as arguably the top club team in the United States with a dominating performance at the End of the Trail tournament earlier this week in Portland.
After the trip to Virginia, Cal Stars head coach and director Kelly Sopak, also the Miramonte of Orinda head coach, added a second Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year finalist to his already loaded Nike Elite roster when 2017 Valerie Higgins of Chaminade (West Hills) joined Ms. Basketball runner-up and State Junior of the Year Sabrina Ionescu of Orinda Miramonte.
Coupled with the CIF Open Division state champion St. Mary’s of Stockton duo of State Freshman of the Year Aquira DeCosta and three-point specialist and developing wing Kat Tudor, Higgins and Ionescu gave Sopak the ability to put four ultra-elite players on the floor.
Add in 6-foot-4 Reno (Nevada) post Mallory McGwire, the niece of MLB great Mark McGwire, and role players like rising 2016 point guard Minyon Moore of Richmond Salesian and 2017 wing Evina Westbrook from South Salem (Oregon), and it’s not surprising the Cal Stars Nike Elite team pretty much blew away the field earlier this week at the End of the Trail event.
What was a bit of a surprise was that the overall championship game was a clean sweep for the Cal Stars program. After the Nike Elite team won the Platinum Bracket and then beat Seattle (Washington) area Emerald City Swish Black in the championship semifinal, the team it faced in the overall title game was the familiar youngsters of the Cal Stars 15U Nike Elite team.
The 15U team won the Silver Bracket and then beat the Northwest Blazers by two points in overtime of their championship semifinal.
The Nike Elite team was a huge favorite over the 15U girls and won as expected 71-41 behind DeCosta’s double-double 16 points and 12 rebounds. DeCosta averaged a double-double for all seven games in the tournament.
“Aquira was about as dominating as she could be in the team system we run,” Sopak remarked.
With the team winning by an average of almost 30 points in the final three games, Sopak had to spread it out and a lot of girls saw action on the 11-player roster.
In the 82-54 win over Emerald City, Higgins led the way with 15 points followed by 13 from Westbrook and a double-double 12 points and 12 rebounds from DeCosta. In the first game of the championships, a 67-40 win over the Spokane Stars from Washington, Ionescu and Tudor led the way with 14 points apiece.
“Sabrina could have scored a lot more in any of the games but she really didn’t need to. She was content being more of a distributor,” Sopak said.
As for Tudor, who is gaining a reputation as not only being a great shooter but as a complete guard/wing, she was 18-for-36 on 3-pointers for the tournament.
Still, even with the domination of the Stars Nike Elite team, the talk of the End of the Trail was about the 15U team and particularly the upset of the Northwest Blazers.
“That win over the Blazers by our 15-under team may be the biggest win in club history,” said Sopak, who founded the Cal Stars in 2006. “It validated how we are developing young players. It’s also a testament to the parents and kids buying into the concept of player development, and that we’re not just a so-called elite program.”
The top scorers for the tournament for the U15 team were Ariel Johnson, a 2018 point guard and defensive specialist from St. Mary’s of Stockton, and Malia Holt, a 2017 guard from Bishop Manogue of Reno.
Claire Steele, a hard-working 2018 guard from Miramonte, led the team in steals and assists; Bre’yanna Sanders, a 6-foot incoming junior forward from Clovis West (Fresno) led the team in rebounding, and Neenah Young, a 2018 guard from Stockton St. Mary’s impressed the scouts and analysts.
The U15 team is coached by Bernard Barnes, a current assistant to Sopak at Miramonte, and previously a successful head coach at Clayton Valley of Concord.
“The reason the Cal Stars are having the kind of success they are having is every one of the coaches is on the same page and uses the same system, even down to the youngest girls,” said Clay Kallam, the Lafayette Bentley head coach, respected analyst, and the only voting member for the McDonald’s All-American Game from Northern California. “A great example is a girl like Claire Steele. She’s already been in the system for six years.”
The Cal Stars continue the NCAA viewing period and the Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) schedule by moving on to the July 10-13 Battle in the Boro in the Nashville, Tennessee area where both the Nike Elite and 15U Nike Elite teams open against North Tartan teams from Minnesota.
Orinda Magic snag consolation championship
The Orinda Magic Black team lost its first game at the End of the Trail to local Portland-area Fast Elite Red but then ran off four straight wins to capture the Gold Brackett consolation championship.
The consolation championship game was against the Utah Flash U17 team with the Magic winning 42-39 in a closely fought battle.
Lesila “Sila” Finau, a 2017 guard from Dublin, led the way with 12 points and JulieAnne Martin, a 2016 guard from Richmond Salesian, had nine points, including the game winning three point shot. For their efforts, both were named All-Tournament.
Just like in the previous four games, the Magic were up against a much taller team.
“I was tempted to suit up assistant coach (and former Kentucky and Cal center) Denesha Stallworth at times,” mused Magic Black head coach and Salesian (Richmond) head coach Stephen Pezzola.
“I was really happy with the effort by the Magic this weekend. After the first game, the young ladies really stepped up and jelled as a team. We had many players play important roles in winning the consolation championship,” continued Pezzola.
Of those role players, Gabby Edmond, a 5-foot-9 incoming sophomore point guard from California (San Ramon), was perhaps the most versatile. She was asked to play post, wing and a shooting guard. She hit four 3-pointers in one game, averaged seven rebounds per game, and generally battled girls inside while routinely giving up six inches. Edmonds also helped in the press break.
Rayana Ross, an incoming senior for Pezzola at Salesian, added toughness on every single play by slashing to the rim on offense or trapping on defense.
Before returning home for next week’s non-viewing “dead” period, Orinda Magic Black is now in Illinois for the July 10-12 Chicago – EYBL event at McCormick Place.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend