Girls of Summer: Loss spurs Cal Stars

Valerie Higgins (Chaminade, West Hills) played well for the Cal Stars team at the Nike Nationals as did Platinum Division MVP Sabrina Ionescu (in background). Photo: Courtesy Cal Stars.

Valerie Higgins (Chaminade, West Hills) played well at the Nike Nationals as did Platinum Division MVP Sabrina Ionescu (in background). Photo: Courtesy Cal Stars.

A first game loss in pool play doesn’t prevent the Cal Stars AAU team, which has two State Players of the Year in the lineup, from rolling to a national title earlier this week in South Carolina. The girls ended their season at 54-1 with their only loss coming to another California team.

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 people stayed earlier this month during the San Diego Classic (including Harold) in the heart of the San Diego area’s top attractions.

After the Cal Stars Nike Elite suffered a tough loss to the California Storm in their first pool play game at the July 27-30 Nike Nationals in North Augusta, South Carolina, the mostly Northern California girls came back in a big way and brought the national championship title home with a 78-47 title-game trouncing of the Spiece Lady Gym Rats of Indiana.

Two State Players of the Year led the way in the Lady Gym Rats’ win with 16 points apiece – Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball finalist and Junior of the Year Sabrina Ionescu (Miramonte, Orinda) and Freshman of the Year Aquira DeCosta of Stockton St. Mary’s. Ionescu also dished out nine assists and had four rebounds, while DeCosta added seven rebounds.

There was a lot to be clapping about as head coach Kelly Sopak guided the team this summer. Photo: Courtesy Cal Stars.

There was a lot to be clapping about as head coach Kelly Sopak guided the team this summer. Photo: Courtesy Cal Stars.

Mallory McGwire (2016, Reno), the niece of former Oakland Athletics’ star Mark McGwire, and one of three girls not from Northern California, had 10 points, while Ms. Basketball finalist Valerie Higgins from Southern California (2016, Chaminade, West Hills) had eight points and a team-high nine rebounds. Kat Tudor (2016, St. Mary’s-Stockton) also had nine points on 3-of-3 from 3-point range, Evina Westbrook (2017, South Salem, Oregon) had nine points and four assists, Minyon Moore (Salesian, Richmond) chipped in with seven points and three assists, and Elle Louie (2017, Miramonte) rounded out the scoring with three points.

To get to the title game, the Cal Stars put the hurt on Cy-Fair Shock (Texas) in an 80-43 semifinal rout. The same duo led the way with DeCosta throwing down 17 points (eight rebounds) and Ionescu racking up a double-double 16 points and 11 assists with six rebounds.

Tudor added 12 points on 4-of-7 from beyond the arc in that game, Westbrook had 10 points, four rebounds and four assists, and McGwire chipped in with nine points and seven rebounds.

“That semifinal first half when we really put them away the girls were laser perfect. It was the most impressive offensive and defensive half I’ve ever been a part of. We actually took the gas off in the second half,” said head coach and Cal Stars Director, and Orinda Miramonte head coach Kelly Sopak.

The way Ionescu has played over the spring and summer against the top players and teams in the nation, the 6-foot wing is leaving little doubt she will be the early favorite for the 2106 Ms. Basketball selection. From a recruiting standpoint, she also has narrowed her schools down to Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Texas and UCLA.

“Well, she won the Platinum MVP award at Nike Nationals,” was the proud response by Sopak to a question about whether Ionescu was the top player in South Carolina.

“Sabrina gave up an opportunity to try out for USA basketball to play for a national championship,” Sopak continued. “She called the director and told them how important it was to her. Not many kids would give up that opportunity, but that’s how important it was to Sabrina to win a national championship.”

Ionescu gave up a possible opportunity to get a third Gold Medal since she was already a two-time USA gold medal winner.
Multitude of big-time recruits

Besides Ionescu, DeCosta, Tudor and Westbrook were named to the Platinum Division All-Tournament team.

DeCosta, a 6-2 multi-position player that the Prospects Nation has as its No. 1 rated 2018 player, almost needs an abacus to keep track of her offers. A very partial list includes Cal, Connecticut, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, Notre Dame, UCLA and Southern California.

Tudor, who will enter her senior season with 299 shots made for St. Mary’s from beyond the arc, has narrowed her choices to Cal and Oregon State.

In the title-game win over the girls from Indiana, Westbrook guarded and shut down one of the nation’s top 2016 recruits, 6-foot-1 Notre Dame-bound Jackie Young. Westbrook, the top-rated 2017 girl from Oregon, already has offers from Cal, Kentucky, Louisville and Southern California.

Higgins wasn’t an all-tourney selection but Sopak could not stop raving about her phenomenal defense, an ability to post up smaller players or go by bigger ones, or his using her, DeCosta and Westbrook in “NBA-style isolation.” Cal, Duke, Louisville, Oregon, Oregon State and Southern California have all offered Higgins.

Oregon-committed McGwire didn’t make all-tournament but according to Sopak the two-time defending Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year was outstanding and drew raves from the college coaches.

“Mallory outplayed every post there,” Sopak remarked. “Her playing so well was a big lift for us.”

Moore saw her stock rise from mostly mid-majors after picking up an offer from Southern California as a result of her play.

The NCAA certified viewing event started with 24 teams that qualified in the 32-team Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) competition held earlier this spring and summer. They were put in six four-team pools in South Carolina. In the end, the competition was so strong at the Nike Nationals no team went undefeated, however the loss by Cal Stars made them 7-1 and it was also their only loss in the 28 games of EYBL play. Overall, the Cal Stars went 54-1 since March.

With a win at the Nike Nationals, the Cal Stars Nike Elite also swept the entire EYBL circuit of stops and reaffirmed its position as the best club team in the nation.
Coach wears lots of hats

“I think ‘overjoyed’ is probably the word that best describes how I feel about winning a national championship,” Sopak told Cal-Hi Sports. “Proud too because I’m proud of the kids and their achievement and sacrifices beginning in March. It’s a long journey and not one for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of resolve from the players, parents and coaches.”

For Sopak, the dedication and sacrifice is phenomenal. Besides being the club director and head coach of the Cal Stars top team, and also having the helm at Miramonte, Sopak has a business and profession. After returning at 3 a.m. from South Carolina on Friday morning, he got a few winks of sleep before spending the day and part of the night on Friday catching up on his work as an agent at the East Bay office of his State Farm Insurance practice.

“People look at it and they think you won all those games and it was easy. Well, it isn’t easy,” Sopak said in conclusion.

Sometimes, some teams just make it look easy.

Harold Abend is the associate editor of and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend

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