By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SONOMA — Playing a home game that they didn’t expect, against an opponent they hadn’t scouted, the Sonoma Valley girls looked anything but unprepared Tuesday night, dispatching Hercules 62-39 in a North Coast Section Division 3 first-round playoff game.
Until about 1 p.m. Monday, the Dragons (14-14) thought they were headed to Tamalpais for their first-round contest. Then word arrived that the NCS had determined fourth seed Campolindo to be ineligible, launching a domino effect that allowed most of the schools in the bracket to climb one seed. The Dragons went from No. 9 to No. 8, which meant a home game.
“Either way, it’s a basketball game, but playing in Sonoma is awesome,” senior guard/forward Annie Studdert said. “I mean, it’s a great gym to play in. Really, the basketball gods were with us on that one. I was excited to play on my home court one last time.”
Heck, Hercules (14-13) was nearly as happy to get the news. The Titans had been slated to travel to Eureka, a 273-mile drive that made Sonoma Valley look like the school around the corner.
These two teams also opened against one another last year, at this same gym, and it was close, with Sonoma Valley pulling out a 50-43 win. Remembering that game, and perusing Hercules’ 2011-12 statistics, Dragons coach Sil Coccia knew three things about his opponent: They like to push the ball upcourt, they can shoot the 3-pointer and they are not tall.
Sonoma’s game plan was to limit the Titans’ transition opportunities and play tight perimeter defense in the halfcourt. Before the game, Coccia said he liked his team’s chances if it could hold Hercules below 40 points. Mission accomplished.
At the other end of the floor, it was the Dragons’ highest scoring output of the season, though Coccia wound up more impressed by the things that don’t appear in the box score.
“Like the way (senior) Jersey Witous is our lock-down defender, and she just took care of No. 2 (Hercules senior guard Chermayne Moore) and kept her on her heels the whole game,” Coccia said. “Things like Karly Burningham rebounding. And that’s why I felt it was a complete team effort today.”
The dynamic senior duo of Studdert and forward Ari Schill were sensational for the Dragons. Studdert led all scorers with 22 points — all of them in the first three quarters as Sonoma Valley built a 43-29 lead — and added eight rebounds. Schill scored 10 points in the third period and finished with 19, many of them on second-chance putbacks, to go along with her game-high 12 rebounds. Burningham, a senior, had seven rebounds.
The Dragons never trailed in this one, scoring the first six points of the game, building a 29-19 halftime advantage and ultimately putting the game out of reach with a 9-0 run in the fourth quarter that bloated the lead to 60-34.
That fourth-period run was a look at the future for Sonoma, with freshman Mackenzie Albrecht doing much of the damage. Albrecht, already known for her volleyball prowess, was called up from the JV team before last Wednesday’s loss to Casa Grande, and has made an immediate impact. She finished Tuesday’s win with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and was highly active around the basket.
For now, it’s still Studdert who draws most of the attention from other teams. Her offensive skills were showcased against Hercules as she scored in any number of ways, including a variety of off-balance leaners.
“She’s a scorer rather than a shooter,” Coccia said. “And a scorer just finds ways to get points, especially when you need ’em. Look, in league she averaged 16 (points) and 11 (rebounds). She’s a double-double every night she steps out there. She could play basketball at the next level. She’s gonna go play soccer — which I think is unfortunate. But I’m supposed to say that.”
Studdert, also an All-Empire soccer player, accepted a scholarship to play soccer at Clemson next year.
If history repeated itself this year with the first-round victory over Hercules, the Dragons are hoping things work out a little differently in Round 2. For the second straight year, they will travel to play mighty Bishop O’Dowd, the three-time defending section champion. Last year, the result was a 68-34 loss. The rematch is Friday.
“I told the girls, embrace the opportunity,” Coccia said. “Two years in a row, you get to go down and play one of the best teams in the state. Why not? You’ve already been there. The shock should be over, you went down there last year. We just practice for two days, and we will go down there and compete. Whatever the score is, I don’t know, but we will compete.”
If they play like they did Tuesday, the Dragons will make that game competitive indeed.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.