Former Sonoma County rivals now teammates at Pomona

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The crowd was fired up for the home team when Sonoma State hosted Cal Poly Pomona in a women’s basketball game at The Wolves’ Den on Jan. 6. It’s just that it was sometimes hard to discern the home team from the visitors.

Pomona's Sarah Semenero tries to get a pass off during the Broncos win over Cal State Stanislaus on Jan. 14. Semenero, who played for Sonoma Valley High School, is one of three Sonoma County athletes, along with Charlene Popoff (Windsor) and Kaitlin Derby (Petaluma), who get key minutes with the first-place Broncos. Tom Zasadzinski / Cal Poly Pomona Photographer

Consider that SSU currently dresses one player from Sonoma County, Maria Carrillo alum Aly Henington. (Ursuline’s Bronte Sheahan is redshirting this season.) Pomona, meanwhile, has three familiar Sonomans — Charlene Popoff (Windsor), Sarah Semenero (Sonoma Valley) and Kaitlin Derby (Petaluma).

Sonoma to Pomona: Say that one three times fast. These young women did. As a result, the former rivals have reinvented themselves as Southern California teammates, helping the Broncos to a 15-2 record, first place in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, and the No. 2 spot in the most recent NCAA Division II West rankings.

They weren’t always the Three Amigas. They were, in fact, bitter Sonoma County League opponents who hardly knew one another away from basketball but constantly had to guard one another on the court.

“Whenever I played Windsor it was ‘stop Char,’ and whenever I played Petaluma it was ‘stop Kait,’” Semenero said recently over breakfast at the SFO Embassy Suites, the other two nodding in shared memory.

None of them is a superstar for the Broncos. Popoff, a power forward, starts sometimes, depending on the lineup coach Danelle Bishop selects for the opponent. Semenero and Derby both come off the bench. But everyone gets minutes on this up-tempo team.

You may remember Semenero as the do-everything Sonoma player who dribbled, shot and defended the Dragons to a 21-7 record and the second round of the North Coast Section Division II playoffs in 2007-08. She was coming on as a sophomore last year when she blew out her ACL in a game at Chico. After months of rehabilitation followed by weeks of playing in an “annoying” protective brace, Semenero has regained her old flair. She’s usually at shooting guard, occasionally at the point.

“She’s crafty,” Bishop said. “She did this behind-the-back move on the break — we thought she was gonna pass it — against UCSD, and went in for a layup. I mean, I just looked at the coaches like, ‘Was that just Sarah?’ … On the defensive end she’s come up with some huge steals for us.”

Popoff makes her mark on the boards despite not exactly towering over the opposition at 5-foot-11.

“We kind of joke around, like her family is from Australia. She’s kind of a little kangaroo,” Bishop said. “She comes in there and rebounds. She’s one of those players you hate to guard, because she’s always moving.”

Derby, the tallest Pomona player at 6-2, alternates between the two forward positions. She has developed a nice shot, and is second on the team with six blocks.

“Kaitlin can come in, and she can just flat-out shoot the ball,” Bishop said. “She’s got long arms, too, so sometimes we’ll put her in to try to bother someone’s shot.”

All three have developed as players since high school, and it has been fun for the former rivals to learn one another’s strengths.

“I definitely forgot, because I hadn’t been playing with them,” Popoff said. “When I came here, I saw, ‘OK, Kaitlin just made a 3 in my eye. No big deal. Sarah’s over here, like putting the ball behind her back.’”

All three women are juniors, but they didn’t enroll at Pomona at the same time. Semenero and Derby went right out of high school. They arrived as 17-year-old strangers but quickly became inseparable as freshmen. They bought season passes to Disneyland and went practically every weekend that year, often with Derby’s boyfriend.

Popoff played at Santa Rosa Junior College for two years before transferring to Pomona. She was drawn by the team, by the campus and by its distance from home, not necessarily by her Sonoma County predecessors, but she hit it off with them right away.

Soon after Popoff’s arrival, though, Scott Davis resigned as Broncos coach. Semenero and Derby texted her repeatedly: “You’re still coming, right?”

Yep, Popoff came, but it took more than two months for the school to name a successor. The players organized a few loose practices and played a lot of open gym over the summer before Bishop, who had previously been at Azusa Pacific and Cal Baptist, took over as interim coach on Aug. 9.

Bishop hasn’t dropped the interim tag yet, but it’s hard to imagine she won’t retain the job after building upon last year’s NCAA tournament appearance and shaping the Broncos into one of the best small programs in the West. They stunned previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Cal State Monterey Bay at Seaside on Jan. 28 to claim a share of first place in the CCAA.

Players cite Bishop’s upbeat personality and bonding exercises. She took her team to the beach before the game at Monterey, and they went bowling in Reno after playing Nevada in the season opener. Bishop invites the players’ families to postgame dinners. “She like always makes us smile before a game, instead of it being stressful,” Semenero said.

The Sonomans have also begun to appreciate Southern California. Initially a little intimidated by the Inland Empire’s vast sprawl, they have warmed up to the weather and to Cal Poly’s rich diversity.

“I think Pomona has kind of opened my eyes,” Semenero said.

“We were sheltered,” Derby added.

They still are. Their families make every game in Northern California, and many in SoCal, too. Semenero said her parents have missed just four games this season.

Just as important, the three former rivals are sheltered by one another, a development they scarcely would have believed when they were trading baskets and elbows back in Sonoma County.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.