Montgomery girls still the team to beat

Reigning NBL MVP Anandi Jimenez, of Montgomery, takes an elbow to the neck during a playoff game last season. Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

Deeply talented top girls teams from the North Bay League are playing tough early schedules to prepare for what should be a very entertaining regular-season slate.
Defending league champion Montgomery again looks like the team to beat with Santa Rosa, Ursuline and Maria Carrillo close on the Vikings’ heels.

“You would have to consider Montgomery the favorite until somebody knocks them off,” Santa Rosa coach Steve Chisholm said.
With all four squads boasting experienced and balanced lineups, there is not much separating the league’s top teams.

“It will definitely be competitive. I think it’s going to be a battle for first,” said Ursuline coach Jeff Paul, who also gave Montgomery the nod for now.
The remaining teams will scramble for wins with Rancho Cotate the best of the rest that includes Ukiah, Piner and Elsie Allen.
Winning five of their first six, Montgomery looks to build on last season when the Vikings won the league and a pair of North Coast Section games.

“It’s a good group of athletes and they play hard,” Montgomery coach Steve Bell said.
Led by league MVP Anandi Jimenez, a forward averaging 16 points a game, and fellow All-Empire player Sarah Fitzgerald at point guard, Montgomery is patient on offense and aggressive on defense.
What the Vikings need is to get healthy — two key players are out with knee injuries — and continue working in a handful of first-year players. Two have been starting, top rebounder Claire Donnelly and guard Ashlee Wilson.

“We’re mixing and matching right now. The new players are stepping up, learning how to play at the varsity pace,” Bell said.
Santa Rosa returns four starters when including Rachel Brumfield, an all-league guard as a sophomore who missed last season with a knee injury.
“She worked really hard getting back into basketball shape and rehabbing the knee. She’s stronger than she was before,” Chisholm said. “She’s got really great court vision, which is something we didn’t have last year.”

Still, the Panthers finished second in league play. This season Santa Rosa looks to push on offense and defense.
“This year our style of play is a very quick-paced tempo. We’re a lot more athletic,” Chisholm said.
The Panthers have scorers in All-Empire players Shawnee Phillips and McKennan Bertsch, and Hannah Sourek. They share the ball well; each averages 10 points per contest.

A trio of returning starters gives Ursuline a high-scoring team led by All-Empire sharpshooter Jordan Henry, who is averaging 23 points a game. Point guard Elisa Vargas is a strong player who is second on the team in rebounds to low-post anchor McKenzie Mangino, who hauls in nearly 10 boards a contest.
“We could definitely be stronger than last year’s team. We’re more balanced,” Paul said.
What success the Bears enjoy depends on the play of several role players including two seniors — Shay Lamb and Rachel Rubattino — who sat out last season.

Playing the last season of Ursuline basketball — the school will close after this school year — doesn’t add more pressure to win. But a league title and deep run in the NCS playoffs would be a great capstone for a successful program.
To prepare for the rigors of league and section play, the teams methodically work over summer with practices and tournaments. The regimen includes playing well early against the often tough teams from across the Bay Area.

Stronger schedules also can help in gaining favorable seeding for the section playoffs.
“You almost have to play a tougher schedule, but saying that you also have to get some wins,” Paul said.
NBL teams may get some bumps early, but bruised egos aren’t a concern, coaches said.
“We had to improve on scheduling this year to have a little tougher schedule for nonconference. It should make us stronger going into league games,” Chisholm said. “They’re actually looking forward to playing these top-tier teams.”

Trying to win while mixing lineups and getting players time in games is challenging.
“We’re trying to figure out who we are, and other teams are doing that as well,” Bell said. “Everybody’s still getting their rhythm, their pace. It’s going to be competitive at the top of the league.”
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or