By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It’s a brand new world for Sonoma County League girls basketball.
Gone is powerhouse Casa Grande, which was undefeated in league last season. Fellow large school Windsor has also moved on. Both schools were re-aligned starting this season into the North Bay League. Coming into the SCL are two programs that are works in progress — Piner and Elsie Allen. The team swapping leaves an SCL that isn’t as strong at the top but has more parity throughout.
The SCL is wide open this year, which makes for some interesting matchups and sets up a likely scramble for league champ in the closing weeks of the season. The general consensus among SCL coaches is that Petaluma and Sonoma Valley are the cream of the crop, with Analy and Healdsburg also in the mix. Piner, El Molino, and Elsie Allen are rebuilding but should benefit from the new SCL.
The epilogue to a long and unpredictable SCL season might just be the league champion being determined on the final day of the regular season. Circle the Feb. 7 Sonoma Valley at Petaluma matchup, as that game might very well determine the title.
Below are short previews of the seven teams in the SCL listed in possible order of finish:
Last Year’s Record: 12-13 overall, 5-7 SCL
Overview: Coach Doug Johnson is at the helm for his 35th year at Petaluma and he has a sound squad of 12 players anchored by three returning seniors. No doubt expectations are high for the Trojans.
“We have gone two years without making the North Coast Section playoffs and that’s too long,” Johnson said. “Enthusiasm is a major strength. We are a very young team so the players have a lot of basketball to learn.”
Petaluma, according to Johnson, has good height, decent team speed and athletic players. Depth is also a strength for the Trojans as they have a rotation of 10 players.
“The kids like to run, to push the ball,” Johnson said. “Right now we don’t pass or shoot the ball too well, but it is early in the season so we will iron it out.”
Player to watch: Senior returning point guard Kierra Lizama will be the guiding force running the offense with senior forward Claire Pareto one of the scoring threats that Lizama will be dishing the ball to.
SONOMA VALLEY DRAGONS
Last Year’s Record: 14-15 overall, 6-6 SCL
Overview: Sonoma has a formidable inside game due to a duo of post players in 5-foot-10 Delaney Swanson and 5-foot-11 Mackenzie Albrecht. The two sophomores will give the Dragons a legitimate inside-out-game run by senior point guard Kendall Ashe.
“Both Swanson and Albrecht are incredible athletes that are post players who can beat almost anyone down the floor,” Sonoma coach Sil Coccia said. “Ashe has never had this (post presence) before. This will allow Kendall to be very creative in running our screen and cut kind of offense.”
Coccia, in his eighth season, said the Dragons have played a tough early schedule that will pay off down the road. The Dragons hit the road this weekend for the competitive Cactus Jam in Tempe, Ariz.
“A rugged nonleague schedule on the road should prepare the girls for anything they will face in league,” Coccia said.
Sonoma will rely on defense and rebounding as its core proficiencies. The Dragons were averaging 40 rebounds for their first seven games.
Player to watch: Ashe is the “straw that stirs the drink,” Coccia said. She started every game last season and the Dragons will count heavily on her floor leadership.
Last Year’s Record: 15-13 overall, 7-5 SCL
Overview: The Tigers have never made it to a second round game in the NCS playoffs and sixth-year coach Earl Passamonte hopes to change that this season.
In fact, Passamonte’s lofty goals include winning the SCL, going deep into the NCS and qualifying for the NorCal state playoffs.
“When I first started coaching at Analy, the players’ expectations weren’t that high,” Passamonte said. “Their expectations are a little different now.”
Analy, which lost to Casa Grande in last year’s SCL tournament title game, has a nine-player rotation that includes five seniors who didn’t see much playing time last year.
In a departure from Passamonte’s usual run-and-gun teams, the Tigers will use a methodical half-court game to use their height and minimize their lack of speed.
“We are not really built to get up and down the floor like my teams in the past,” Passamonte said. “We have had to change our philosophy. It is very different for me as a coach.”
Player to watch: Sophomore 5-foot-10 post player Jenna Petray will be the focal point of Analy’s inside-out game. Petray will learn on the job but should be a complement to senior point guard Haley Bradford and shooting guard Mikenna Martin.
Last Year’s Record: 15-13 overall, 8-4 SCL
Overview: This season will be a learning experience for the Greyhounds, a young and inexperienced team. Seven players graduated from last year’s second place squad, leaving only four returning players this season. Coach Brian Osborn, in his second year, will start two girls that were playing junior high basketball a year ago.
“All of our young players have to contribute if we are to be successful,” Osborn said. “We aren’t throwing them to the wolves, we have prepared them, but they will have to produce.”
While not a tall team, inexperience is surely the biggest weakness for the Greyhounds. However, Healdsburg’s youth is a source of strength with its stable of deep, fast, and athletic guards that can push the ball up the court.
“The SCL is a lot more open this year,” Osborn said.
Player to watch: Senior guard/forward HelenAnn Haun is the heart-and-soul of the team according to Osborn. Haun, who leads in statistics for the Greyhounds, will also be counted on to mentor the many younger, inexperienced players on the roster.
Last Year’s Record: 4-22 overall, 2-12 NBL
Overview: Second-year coach Matt Tomlin is working to overhaul the program after a rough final season in the NBL.
“I’m trying to change the atmosphere of the program,” Tomlin said. “We are starting from scratch, learning how to walk.”
The Prospectors started with 12 players but are down to eight, as three have quit and one was suspended. Tomlin added that he can’t bring up kids from the junior varsity because they are too green. Thus, depth will be a major issue for Piner. On the plus side, the Prospectors have five returning players and six seniors.
Other hurdles for the Prospectors include a lack of a post presence and lack of speed. Tomlin said his goal is to make the playoffs as part of his five-year plan.
“That’s what everyone keeps saying, that we should have an easier go in the SCL versus the NBL,” Tomlin said. “I have eight kids that are dedicated and we can go from there.”
Player to watch: The Prospectors will be led by a trio of senior guards, Mimi Sanchez, Sara Arteseros, and Yesenia Arteaga.
EL MOLINO LIONS
Last Year’s Record: 6-14 overall, 3-9 SCL
Overview: With seven players from last year’s team graduated, El Molino will be challenged to improve from last season’s 3-9 SCL record.
Of nine players, four are seniors but only two are returning players, leaving the Lions inexperienced.
“We have been struggling (this year),” third-year coach Melissa Jones said. “We are trying to put together a complete game.”
Team strengths, said Jones, are defense and athleticism. Weaknesses include inexperience, lack of rebounding and inconsistency.
Jones has set team goals that are achievable and El Molino should also benefit from the league realignment.
“The key to our season is to not have any girls quit, to get a couple of league wins, which would be awesome, and to play competitive,” Jones said. “It’s hard for us to compete when we keep getting killed by the larger schools. Now we are matched up with similar-sized schools and that evens out the playing field.”
Player to watch: The two returning players, seniors Megan Warren (post) and Hanna Bauer (shooting guard) will provide the experience and leadership on a very green team.
ELSIE ALLEN LOBOS
Last Year’s Record: 0-22 overall, 0-14 NBL
Overview: No team will likely benefit more from switching leagues than the Lobos, who were pounded in the NBL.
Fourth-year coach Donald Peoples is teaching his young and inexperienced players the fundamentals of the game, something more established teams take for granted.
“We are fundamentally marginal,” Peoples said. “We spend a good portion of our time in practice working on straight-up fundamentals.”
Of the 11 players, eight are seniors and four are returners. The Lobos lack of height spells trouble on the boards.
“Other teams are getting offensive rebounds and then getting buckets,” Peoples said. “Since we aren’t very tall we will half-court trap and make opponents start their offense at half court.”
Peoples said the team’s goal isn’t about winning but rather sportsmanship, maturity, responsibility and commitment.
“For me, it’s the competition and not giving up — that can be applied to anything in your life. It takes character what my girls go through,” Peoples said. “My goal for the girls is to compete and leave it all on the floor.”
Player to watch: Post player Amanda Alvarez, off-guard Paola Cruz and point guard Elizabeth Sandoval will form the core of the team.