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Girls basketball doesn’t have the same kind of transfers and movement that boys basketball has in California but there are some significant transfers that changed the landscape a bit to begin the season.
The other thing absent from girls’ basketball is players jumping ship to play at prep schools or to be home-schooled like what happened to three of the top boys players in the state, so although the transfers have to be factored in, the bulk of the top returning star players in the state are still at the schools where they finished last season.
(Final 2016-17 ranking in parentheses)
(Does not include any games played after Nov. 20)
1. (6) St. Mary’s (Stockton) 21-9
The Rams start out on top for a variety of reasons. We saw their top players over the spring, summer and fall, and senior 6-foot-2 Baylor-bound State Junior of the Year Aquira DeCosta (18.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 3.7 steals last season) showed exactly why she is the Class of 2018 ESPNW No. 1 rated wing and No. 4 player overall in the nation by analyst Dan Olson. Florida-committed guard Ariel Johnson (15.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.0 assists, 3.2 steals) and Princeton-bound 5-foot-10 wing Neenah Young (15.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.5 assists, 2.5 steals) played very well together with DeCosta during the spring, summer and fall on the Cal Stars club team, the top Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) team in the nation. That trio gives head coach Tom Gonsalves the top 1-2-3 combination in the state but after that there are some question marks but some potential bright spots as well. Injuries plagued the Rams last year and the bug has already bit with promising 6-foot-1 sophomore wing Amaya Oliver looking to be out the entire season with a knee injury. The Rams lose Oliver but rugged junior Anna Blount and her family moved back to Stockton after three-years in the Sacramento area and the 6-foot power forward/center who averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.4 rebounds last year at Sacramento brings a physical inside presence that could be a big plus for Gonsalves and his game plan. Brown is interested in the 4.3 GPA student athlete that Gonsalves says will “meet the team’s needs” with her inside presence. Junior guard Nicole Young, the little sister of Neenah, is back after missing last year with an injury, and Gonsalves says she may be the best shooter on the team, and junior wing Jada Moss (6.2 ppg), who already has offers including Fresno State, will see more action this season. One more additional transfer that Gonsalves says will be in the rotation is sophomore guard Monique Vasquez. She comes from Sacramento Grant where Gonsalves says she was the best player on the team. Some rankings have St. Mary’s behind Archbishop Mitty but based on who is returning, the addition of Blount and others, and not necessarily on overall depth, St. Mary’s starts out on top after starting last season at number four and finishing sixth. “We’re not as deep as I would like but we’re pretty good,” Gonsalves said. St. Mary’s opens with defending Division II state champion Fairfield Vanden. The Rams have four other games before heading off to the Nike TOC including St. Patrick-St. Vincent (Vallejo) in the Mats Classic at Orinda Miramonte on Dec. 1 and Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco.
The defending CIF Northern Regional Open Division champions started out at No. 1 last season and ended up No. 2 at the end after they couldn’t hold a 37-30 lead early in the fourth quarter and lost 44-40 to Clovis West (Fresno) in the CIF Open Division title game. Head coach Sue Phillips graduated a lot of senior scoring, but she returns some solid talent and a good case could be made for the Monarchs to be at the top of the preseason state rankings like they are in a couple of other rankings. Phillips may have a little deeper squad than St. Mary’s if you go real deep but while her first 6-7 players may be head and shoulders above everyone in the state, the group is just a notch below St. Mary’s. The top player is junior 6-1 State Sophomore of the Year and Ms. Basketball finalist Haley Jones, who got very high marks from the college coaches during the NCAA viewing period. As a teammate of Aquira DeCosta on the Cal Stars she finished No. 2 behind De Costa who was No. 1 in the 2017 Cal-Hi Sports Girls of Summer player rankings. Last season, Jones led Mitty in points with 15.3 and rebounds at 8.2 per game. The Class of 2019 ESPNW No. 1 wing and No. 5 ranked player in the nation overall does not have her college offers posted but according to very reliable sources everyone in the nation wants her in no particular order but starting with Connecticut, South Carolina and Stanford, plus Cal, Baylor, Texas, UCLA, Oregon and USC, and according to the source “anyone and everyone.” Phillips’ No. 2 returner is Penn State-bound guard Karisma Ortiz. The Girls of Summer No. 8 ranked Ortiz looked improved over the summer and fall after averaging 9.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game last season. Two other key contributors that return are Girls of Summer No. 25 and San Diego-bound 6-2 post Nicole Blakes, and Westmont College-bound guard Krissy Miyahara. Phillips is always preparing for March and not November and the formula has worked in the past as her teams have appeared in 12 state title games and have won six to go with 26 CIF Central Coast Section championships. Whether having more depth in the second rotation is a factor come the playoffs remains to be seen.
3. (5) Pinewood (Los Altos Hills) 25-4
Head coach Doc Scheppler and his girls move up two spots from where they finished last year after going down to Cardinal Newman in the second round of the Northern Regional Open Division playoffs. The bottom line coming into this season is the doctor is loaded. Playing as a team, they won the San Diego Classic and in doing so beat Maxpreps preseason No. 25 and defending Arizona large school champion Mesquite, and they did it without last year’s leading scorer Hannah Jump. Two senior big contributors are gone but junior Jump (15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), senior guard Briana Claros (11.2 ppg, 3.9 assists), the MVP of the San Diego Classic who has become more aggressive, 5-10 power forward Klara Astrom (12.3 ppg, team-leading 7.3 rpg) who plays like a 6-footer, and three-point shooting guard Kaitlyn Leung all return. Plus, Scheppler’s incoming freshman class is likely the best in the state. Scheppler has never really had a true post but he has one now in 6-foot-1 Olivia Williams. Williams, who is the granddaughter of the late Ron “Fritz” Williams of San Francisco/Golden State Warriors fame, and has dual citizenship and plays on the New Zealand U16 team, registered double-digit rebounds in every game at the San Diego Classic, including 13 against Mesquite. Without even playing a high school game she was ranked No. 15 in the Girls of Summer rankings, and that was ahead of No. 18 Jump and No. 20 Astrom. Two other freshmen who played like seasoned veterans in San Diego and were big contributors in the Mesquite win are guards Courtni Thompson and Una Jovanovich. “Getting the freshmen up to Pinewood stuff has been the focus the past few weeks,” Scheppler said. “They played good when we had them in San Diego but they haven’t experienced the high school level of intensity. Other than that we have a lot of depth and the girls are chomping at the bit.” The biggest obstacle for Pinewood this season is likely the two teams ahead of them in the rankings, but looking down the line other than Claros the rest of the team is underclass.
4. (9) Salesian (Richmond) 24-9
The Pride are loaded and return their top six scorers that finished the season but it all starts in the middle with Girls of Summer No. 7 ranked and 6-foot-5 junior post Angel Jackson. The ESPNW No. 12 ranked big girl and double-double machine is poised for a breakout season after averaging 11.2 ppg, 10.2 rebounds and 5.8 blocks per game. The knock on her is she is not nearly as aggressive offensively as she is on defense but according to head coach Stephen Pezzola that and a lot of other things have changed. “Angel has worked hard on looking for her offense more than last season and being aggressive,” Pezzola said. “She’s getting out on fast breaks and finishing better, and off the court she’s gotten more serious in the weight room and in her nutrition.” The result is recruiting action is heating up for Jackson. She has offers from Arizona, Clemson, Minnesota, UNLV and Washington State, but with her improvement Texas, Cal and Arizona State are becoming a lot more interested as well. Depth is the story of the Pride and according to Pezzola he’s deeper than he’s ever been. Besides the six top scorers, 11 players return with nine having seen a fair amount of action. Top-notch defender and senior guard Taimane Lesa-Hardee, who has some college interest, junior power forward Makayla Edwards, junior shooting guard Nia Chinn, senior forward Sydni Stewart, junior guard Anjel Galbraith, all return and each averaged over six points per game with Stewart and Edwards No. 2 and 3 on the team in rebounding. Pezzola has some promising freshmen coming in as well and 6-foot senior transfer Cali Fuller comes over from Richmond Kennedy where she averaged 25.0 points, 10.4 rebounds 7.4 assists, 7.8 steals and 3.5 blocks last season for the 14-14 Eagles. Pezzola is not dodging anyone. Salesian plays Pinewood and Campolindo before heading off to the Nike TOC, its in the Platinum Division of the West Coast Jamboree, and is at the MLK Showcase at St. Mary’s.
5. (14) Etiwanda 26-3
It may surprise some to see the Eagles and first-year head coach Stan Delus at the top of the Southern California heap with no published roster and no major tournaments scheduled but the consensus among the top coaches in Southern California was unanimous and that is Delus is loaded. Delus, who was an assistant to now retired Etiwanda head coach Anders Anderson, is no stranger to top-notch girls’ basketball in SoCal as he has been a successful club coach for several years. Two D1 players are gone from a team that lost its last two games but during the season had wins over Windward, Santa Ana Mater Dei, La Jolla Country Day and Serra. The team leader this year from a team with more depth than anyone in the Southland is Nevada-bound senior combo guard Daja Hamilton. She averaged 15.5 points, five rebounds and four assists last season. Another flashy guard is Evanne Turner (13 points, six rebounds last season). Delus is looking for big things from 6-foot-3 Cal State Northridge-bound transfer Daniela Popa. She averaged 13.0 points and 10.5 rebounds last season at Redlands East Valley. Delus also has “big expectations” for last year’s sixth girl and 6-foot forward Kimore Sykes. Sophomore 6-foot-2 post Nnenna Orji, whose sister Leilia Orji was one of last year’s stars and is now at Seattle University, has looked great this fall along with senior point guard Aujane Mayes, who Delus feels is one of the top defending point guards in Southern California. Speaking of fall ball, Etiwanda beat Long Beach Poly, Santa Ana Mater Dei, Alemany, and La Jolla Country Day twice, all by double-digits. They were tested by a new kid on the block this season Ribet Academy. “Those weren’t fake games or fake teams,” Delus remarked. “They were real games in front of college coaches and they tried to win and so did we.” In fact, it was some of those coaches that sang Etiwanda’s praises. “Right now we need to focus on us and our deficiencies and getting better. Playing those teams in the fall showed us where we are at but we still have to stay humble.”
The defending CIF Division I state champions finished below the Open Division teams in last year’s final rankings because they were upset in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs by Lakeside of Lake Elsinore. That was then and this is now and some even feel the Wildcats are the top team from Southern California with Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball finalist and our No. 3 player in the state Charisma Osborne leading the way. Their case would have been stronger had not big and rugged post Myrrah Joseph not transferred to Carson, and in the end they may still end up on top. Even so, junior sensation Osborne (19.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.4 assists, 2.5 steals) has a solid supporting cast around her. Junior wing Kaiyah Corona (8.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and senior point guard Sela Kay (7.5 ppg, 2.9 assists) are the top returners besides Osborne. Look for others like junior guard India Otto and senior guard Kamil English to step up to bigger roles this season. We’ll find out early how good head coach Vanessa Nygaard’s girls are when they open on Wednesday with Harvard-Westlake and then play Long Beach Poly to open the Redondo Classic.
7. (8) Carondelet (Concord) 28-5
The Cougars were knocked out of the Northern Regional Open Division playoffs in the first round by Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa, but the good news for head coach Elgin Leslie is that 11 of the 14 players on the roster return, including promising 6-foot-3 junior post Ali Bamberger, who averaged 10 ppg and 11 rpg last season and was top 35 and looked improved when observed for the Girls of Summer. This also could be a breakout season for 5-10 senior forward Maaeva Dwiggins. The backcourt for Leslie is solid as well with senior Leah Walton and junior Emily Howie his top two guards. Leslie will be looking to some other juniors besides Bamberger and Howie to step up as well. “We’re looking for big things from Tatyana Modawar and Erica Miller and Alex Brown too. It’s the juniors’ time to step up,” Leslie said. Leslie also pointed to his Cougars’ tough schedule that includes No. 1 St. Mary’s, Archbishop Mitty, Pinewood and Salesian, and they’re in the Platinum Division of the West Coast Jamboree along with Mitty and Salesian.
8. (13) Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood) 25-5
As was previously mentioned, the Wolverines will have their hands full right off the bat when they meet Charisma Osborne and Windward to open the season on Wednesday. It could definitely be argued that the winner of that game would then be regarded as the early leader in SoCal. A feather in the caps of head coach Melissa Hearlihy and her girls is they had some solid wins last season and the week after Lakeside knocked off Windward they knocked off Lakeside and then beat Etiwanda before losing to Long Beach Poly in the CIFSS Open title game and then to La Jolla Bishop’s in the first round of the Southern Regional Open playoffs. Hearlihy loses two contributors to graduation but although it doesn’t appear she has a lot of depth what she has are the 5-foot-11 Rufus-Milner twins Jayla and Jayda. Last season Jayla averaged a double-double 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game with 2.3 assists and 2.4 steals. Jayda went for 12.3 points and 7.9 rebounds. Senior 5-foot-10 forward Melanie Hirsch (7.8 ppg) and senior guard Ashlee Wong (5.9 ppg) are the top two returners after the twins.
9. (26) La Jolla Country Day (San Diego) 18-12
The Torreys lost a lot of games last year but not one of them was to an unranked team and their worst loss was to Ventura. Alaysia “Birdie” Styles took a lot of offense with her to Cal but she was the only player head coach Terri Bamford lost, and it’s who is back that has the California girls’ basketball scene excited, and that’s sophomore Te-Hina Paopao. The 5-9 point guard was a huge favorite to win the State Freshman of the Year award until she missed all but a few games due to a knee injury. Then when she came back at the end she was only about 60-70-percent and Bamford couldn’t really use her. Paopao is a star waiting to be born and this year will begin the saga. She looked great in workouts over the summer and she was back for fall ball. Her supporting cast is good as well. Senior San Diego-bound wing Kiera Oakry (10.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Cal Poly-Pomona-bound senior sharpshooter Jayda Villareal (10.0 ppg, 2.9 assists), 6-foot senior University of Washington (St. Louis, MO) (8.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) Bianca Notarainni and 5-foot-11 senior power forward and UC San Diego-bound Kendal Ellenbeck (5.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), all return as the supporting cast for Paopao. “This fall Etiwanda was the only team that gave us trouble but I really like this group and we’re going to be good,” said Bamford. Besides the Sweet 16 and its loaded field next week at Country Day, Bamford has scheduled Nevada power Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) in early December before heading off to the Nike TOC and then the SoCal Holiday Prep Classic.
10. (22) Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 24-9
The Monarchs had what for the Mater Dei faithful was a down year, but a Southern Regional Division II title is nothing to sneeze at, and this year’s group is very solid and should get No. 2 all-time winningest girls basketball Kevin Kiernan (724 wins at Westminster La Quinta, Fullerton Troy and Mater Dei) within striking distance of passing Joe Vaughn (761 wins at Ventura Buena) next season. Kiernan lost some solid talent but he returns four college-bound seniors in Nevada-Reno-bound 6-2 power forward/post Emma Torbert (8.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), guard Nicole Freeman (CSU Northridge) (7.3 ppg), guard Sarah Rahon (Seattle University) (4.9 ppg), 6-foot forward Madison Johnson (Xavier). Kiernan also has some incoming freshmen he really likes. His top newcomer is 6-foot-2 Brooke Demetre, who made some huge impressions this summer, and very well could be the next big Monarchs star. The other two are 6-foot-1 forward Khylee Pepe and guard Alyssa Frescas. Cailyn Crocker, a 5-foot-10 junior wing has transferred from Los Alamitos where she was one of the top players last season. She hurt her foot at the USA Trials and had surgery and is rehabbing. “We have really good pieces. Putting it together is the challenge,” Kiernan said. “Crocker may be key but she won’t be ready till January we hope. We will likely be better as the season goes on.” Mater Dei opens with the South Coast Holiday Classic and then will play in the Nike TOC and then the Delaware Diamond State Classic.
11. (3) Long Beach Poly (Long Beach) 27-4
Without going back into the archives, our recollection tells us this is the lowest the Jackrabbits have started the preseason in a long time, and frankly if it wasn’t for the fact head coach Carl Buggs has a history of re-loading and an enrollment of 4,500 kids to choose from, plus the fact with open enrollment in Long Beach the girls basketball players gravitate to Poly, they could be lower. Buggs has eight players returning but those eight combined for 24.1 points per game with senior guard Taylor Lloyd (5.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.0 assists) as the top returner. Either the core eight players will step up and Buggs will have some freshmen talent emerge or it could be a long season for Poly outside the Moore League. We’ll find out soon as Buggs and his girls play Windward next week.
12. (NR) Folsom 27-5
Some are likely wondering how this team could jump into the mix so high even though the MaxPreps computer had the Bulldogs at No. 33 last year. The bottom line is they are now a much different version of last year’s Lady Bulldogs, and significantly improved. Last year’s group that beat top-seeded Atherton Menlo Atherton before being eliminated by Oak Ridge in the CIF Northern Regional Division I playoffs was basically a one girl team led by McKenzie Forbes, who averaged 20 points and seven rebounds last season. Not only has the Cal-bound Forbes significantly improved her game since then after finishing No. 4 in the Girls of Summer rankings, but one of the girls that was part of the Bulldogs’ demise in the Oak Ridge loss is now her teammate, and that would be UCLA-bound 6-foot-6 senior post Shayley Harris, who also dragged along her 6-6 sophomore post and sister Katie Harris along for the ride over to Folsom. Head coach Lynn Wolking has her Bulldogs in the Elk Grove and Roseville tournaments, and then faces McClatchy before rolling the dice in the Platinum Division of the West Coast Jamboree.
13. (17) Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 23-6
The Trailblazers had an injury-plagued finish to last season and even so they only lost 68-65 to Windward in the Southern Regional Division I semifinals. Protégé of Mater Dei’s Kevin Kiernan and upcoming bright young coach Alicia Komaki lost a D1 player in Alexis Griggsby but everyone queried other than the delightfully coy Komaki put Sierra Canyon in the spot we have them in the Southern California pecking order. “Don’t rank us. We aren’t good until January. We will lose many games in December. Brutal schedule, I’m dumb as rocks,” Komaki said tongue-in-cheek. Her top returner is senior Ryann Payne who averaged 16 points and four assists last season. Junior Amanda Oliver is back after going for eight points and eight rebounds per game last season. Two sophomore transfers also join current sophomore budding star Ashley Chevalier. Vanessa de Jesus comes over from Los Angeles Marlborough and Alexis Mark transfers from Sun Valley Village Christian, and part of the reason Komaki wants to wait until January is that is when the transferring pair becomes eligible.
14. (10) Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) 26-5
The Dragons fall a bit from where they finished to end last season after losing their top player in current University of San Diego freshman Myah Pace. Even so, after going out 51-43 to Pinewood last year in the NorCal Open Division first round, head coach Malik McCord returns a formidable group led by senior guard Zakiya Mahoney (10 ppg, 8 rpg) and junior guard Jada Holland (10 ppg, 6 assists). Both looked very good over the summer and fall and they are accompanied by a formidable group including State Freshman of the Year candidate and sophomore guard Daylee Dunn and sophomore wing Kayla Hankins. Senior wing Jordan Gudger looked good during the viewing periods and will provide senior leadership with Mahoney. The problem for McCord is he has no height, and although Mahoney is unafraid to mix it up inside the Dragons would be higher up if they had more height. We’ll see where McCord and his girls are at right off the bat when they face Mitty next week and then Pinewood before the Nike TOC and the West Coast Jamboree’s Gold Division.
15. (31) Rosary Academy (Fullerton) 30-5
Playing against Open Division level teams, head coach Rich Yoon and his girls were overmatched at the San Diego Classic but the bottom line is the CIF Division III state champions return just about every major contributor including All-State First Team freshman selection and Royals guard Katherine Goostrey. Another top returner is 6-foot-1 senior post Rebekah Obinma. She had a triple-double 12 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in the 62-45 victory over Campolindo in the CIF state D3 title game. We will see right off the bat if Yoon’s girls are legitimate again this season as they have road games early on against Ventura, Sierra Canyon and Gardena Serra plus others before opening with Fullerton Troy in the SoCal Holiday Classic.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend