We are continuing with a series of girls basketball preseason-style features on some of the state’s most prominent programs and players for the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost been one year since any of them have played and it may end up being until December of 2021 for some. We hope that isn’t the case, but the work is continuing and for this report we go inside a team that would have probably started a normal season among the top five in the state. Coming Next: La Jolla Country Day.
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Our first two Insider Report previews featured the two teams from Northern and Southern California that likely would have been the top preseason ranked teams in each of the CIF regions, Archbishop Mitty of San Jose for the north and Mater Dei of Santa Ana for the south.
While those two teams were given top billing, there are several other teams that would have been in the top five in the state, and one of them is defending CIF Southern Section Open Division runner-up and CIF Southern Regional Open Division runner-up Windward of Los Angeles.
Considering the youth of the Wildcats, their finish from last year, including a 27-6 record, was very solid.
“The players worked so hard and improved so much last year,” said head coach and reigning State Coach of the Year Vanessa Nygaard. “It was a fantastic season for our program with so many new key contributors.
“Of course we wanted to end the season with a win, especially for our seniors McKayla Williams (now at Gonzaga) and Ally Lopez but, there were so many great victories and great team moments on and off the court, and we are all proud of last years’ amazing team,” Nygaard continued. “Our program has a tradition of excellence and I know reaching the finals for the Open section and regional championships last year will provide additional motivation for our returners.”
Nygaard doesn’t return quite as much depth that Mitty or Mater Dei does, but she does return some experienced players and very solid talent, including one of the nation’s top underclass players, and she has quite a few newcomers as well.
As for the returners, it starts with All State First Team Elite selection and Los Angeles Times Player of the Year and sophomore guard Judea “Juju” Watkins, one of the few freshmen ever to make a Cal-Hi Sports All State first team. Watkins, who is a 6-foot combo guard who earns a 5-star rating from ESPN and was a razor thin runner-up for State Freshman of the Year, averaged 20.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. In the SoCal Open title game 59-48 loss to La Jolla Country Day, Watkins led the team with 16 points and played her heart out.
Based on the reports and input of analysts that have seen her in workouts since the COVID-19 pandemic put a crimp on indoor basketball action, and some YouTube videos from late last year, Watkins could be poised to be an all-time great in California girls basketball.
Just based on what Watkins did last season makes her one of the leading candidates for Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year, since if we have any kind of season, as short as it may be, Cal-Hi Sports will be awarding the same honors as if we had a complete season.
Nygaard, a Stanford grad who played at the highest level in college and who has won two CIF state championships, in Division I in 2017, and 2018 in the Open Division, each time led by current UCLA sophomore Charisma Osborne, has played with and coached some truly talented players and knows greatness when she sees it. She can’t say enough about Watkins.
“Juju has a standing scholarship offer from every top school in America,” Nygaard said. “Juju will change the game of women’s basketball. She is a once in a lifetime transformational player, a great teammate and a delight to coach. I know Juju has been working very hard during the pandemic and is committed to diversifying her skill set. I can’t wait to see her back on the court.”
While Watkins is one of the top players not only in the state but the entire nation, Windward is not a one-girl team, and Nygaard wanted to give all the girls a shout out.
Another standout returner who has earned a Division I scholarship is Michelle Duchemin. The Cal State Northridge committed senior averaged a double-double and was second on the team in scoring and tops in rebounds at 12.7 points and 11.4 boards per game.
“Michelle keeps getting better,” Nygaard said. “She works really hard and loves basketball and has tremendous potential and athleticism. I look forward to seeing her leadership on and off the court as a senior.”
Another senior that Nygaard is looking to as a contributor is Ava Mearns. “Ava missed most of last season with a hand injury,” Nygaard remarked. “But she has good size and lots of experience in our program. Her senior year is her year.”
The Wildcats also return three juniors who will be looked on to improve on last year’s numbers.
Kelise Jackson averaged 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. According to Nygaard: “Kelise keeps getting better. She can do everything on the court and plays with great energy.”
Nygaard also is looking for big things from Maya Stokes after she had 5.0 points and 1.7 rebounds per game averages last season. “Maya really finished the season strong last year, coming up huge for us in several playoff games,” she said. “This is going to be a big year for her. She has elite speed and athleticism and is a D1 talent who is ready to shine.”
The third returning junior is Maddie Doi, who contributed 2.0 points and 1.0 rebounds per game. “Maddie is a great all around player and an excellent shooter,” Nygaard said. “She keeps our team motor running smoothly and is tough both mentally and physically.”
Besides Watkins, the Wildcats have another returning sophomore that Nygaard is looking to for a breakout if and when we have a season. Skye Belker is that player. She averaged 3.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per game last season. “Skye has been working really hard and she will be a huge contributor for our team,” Nygaard said. “She is a phenomenal athlete, very skilled, and as gritty as they come. I can’t wait to see her improvement on the court this season.”
With only two seniors and a load of underclass players, Windward looks poised to remain as one of the top teams in the state, and to add to that the Wildcats have five incoming freshmen for Nygaard to mold into stars: India Marrero, Laurel Hinds, Sadie Cohen, Lexi Shapiro and Serenity Johnson.
When talking about her players, Nygaard repeatedly refers to this season, although though there is still tremendous uncertainty even as the pandemic’s case numbers continue to improve. One thing is for sure and that is if we do have some kind of season Nygaard and her girls will be ready.
“We are excited to get back on the court and with an experienced and seasoned group,” Nygaard said. “They are a delightful group to coach and I know they will work hard and improve every day. With this extra planning time, we might have a few new tricks up our sleeve.”
Speaking of extra planning time, Nygaard and her staff have been making the best of it with Windward taking the pandemic and what needs to be done during it seriously.
“We have been living that zoom life as a team,” responded Nygaard when asked what things they have been able to do at Windward and under the restrictions of Los Angeles County. “I feel fortunate to work at a school that is taking every precaution to keep students and staff safe.
“Just last week we were cleared for outdoor workouts,” Nygaard continued. “I am a huge fan of FIBA 3×3, it will be in the Olympics this summer, so we will be getting into that as well as practicing. Hopefully we will be cleared to be back in the gym soon.”
Through it all, the Wildcats’ players and coaches have been making the best of the situation with the coaches chomping at the bit just as much as the players.
“We are staying optimistic,” Nygaard said. “So much has been taken from these students over the past year. Whatever we are able to do together we will make the most if it.”
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