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NBL girls basketball preview: Stronger, new-look league

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A lot of athletic leagues wind up with co-champions. But how many can claim two outright champions?

That’s the deal in North Bay League girls basketball this year. Casa Grande, last year’s Sonoma County League champ, has come to the NBL via realignment (along with Windsor), joining NBL title defender Maria Carrillo and six other hungry schools.

With teams like Montgomery and Santa Rosa returning potent rosters, and with last year’s lower finishers expecting marked improvement, this could be the most competitive NBL season in a long time.

“The potential this year for anyone beating anyone else on any given night is a reality now more than ever,” Montgomery coach Steve Bell said.

Of course, if NBL teams take turns beating on one another as expected, their records may all suffer a bit. That could be an issue when it comes time for playoff berths and seeding, unless the North Coast Section recognizes the overall strength of this league.

“That’s probably the downside of it,” Santa Rosa coach Steve Chisholm said. “But the upside is it’s gonna be much stronger, more competitive and balanced, which will bode well for teams going into NCS. There will not be an easy night or a time when you can afford to take a night off. There will be a lot of games going down to the wire in the last minutes, close games, and that’s what you want for the playoffs.”

Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the NBL:

CASA GRANDE GAUCHOS

Last year’s record: 31-3 overall, 12-0 SCL

Overview: Casa Grande may be new to the NBL, but the Gauchos aren’t likely to sneak up on anybody — not after their dynamic 2011-12 season, when they won 31 games and played in the CIF NorCal playoffs. Casa has 10 players back from that team, including all-SCL picks Lyndsey Murnin, Brooke Santander and Dayna Dolcini, but will struggle to replace league co-MVPs Gretchen Harrigan and Stephanie Sack (coach Dan Sack’s daughter). The Gauchos don’t have a lot of height, but they are deep, quick to the ball and hardened by big games.

Player to watch: Murnin was Casa Grande’s shooting guard until Stephanie Sack graduated. Now she moves to the point, and so far she looks equal to the job. “She’s leading us in scoring, but at the same time she’s trying to fill Steph’s role as a playmaker first,” Dan Sack said. “She can distribute but still be a scoring threat if needed. She’s doing a terrific job.”

 

MARIA CARRILLO PUMAS

Last year’s record: 24-6 overall, 13-1 NBL

Overview: Chris Walton takes over as Maria Carrillo’s third coach in as many seasons. Yet through all the upheaval, the Pumas have hardly skipped a beat on the court, winning a league title last year. Walton has a strong nucleus with returning starters Aaliyah Sowards and Mikaela Francis; his goal early on is to make sure his girls play with passion. When the Pumas came out flat in a preseason game against St. Vincent, he sat down all five starters for an extended stretch. “My focus is not what’s transpired here in the past,” Walton said. “We have a new outlook for this season, especially my seniors. I want to send them out with some positive stuff.”

Player to watch: Maria Carrillo lost Madison Sowards, who graduated after earning league MVP honors as a senior. But her sister Aaliyah is ready to take over a leadership role. The younger Sowards played point guard last year. Walton is moving her to shooting guard to set her up for more scoring.

 

SANTA ROSA PANTHERS

Last year’s record: 18-10 overall, 12-2 NBL

Overview: Last year, the Panthers fell off only a little bit from their 2010-11 state tournament run, and coach Steve Chisholm believes he has another contender. “Right now, our strength is that we’re athletic,” Chisholm said. “We’re pretty quick. We’re actually quicker than last year, despite getting bigger.” Santa Rosa lost two top post players in Hannah Sourek and Anitra Romelli, but seems to have found able replacements in 6-2 sophomore Devin Murray (currently out with a concussion) and 6-4 junior Morgan Bertsch — younger sister of McKennan Bertsch, the Panthers’ top scorer two years ago.

Player to watch: Santa Rosa returns just one starter from a year ago. That player is Katie Daly, entering her third season in the starting lineup. Quick and heady at both ends of the court, the junior point guard continues to expand into the leadership role she embraced last season.

 

MONTGOMERY VIKINGS

Last year’s record: 22-8 overall, 11-3 NBL

Overview: The Vikings finished third in the league last year despite a stellar 22-8 overall record. Even with Casa Grande moving in, they should have a shot to move up. Montgomery returns two all-NBL picks in forward Claire Donnelly and guard Chantal Evett, and the ability doesn’t end there. Players like forward Kiana Hawkins and guards Ashlee Wilson and Angela Hess —all seniors — give the Vikings exceptional balance, as evidenced by their fast start in preseason play. They can score inside or outside, pick up the tempo or slow it down. Coach Steve Bell likes his team’s chemistry, too.

Player to watch: Donnelly is a tough rebounder and a proven scorer, but it’s the intangibles that have Bell singing her praises. “She’s working on her footwork and being a little more confident inside, finishing her shot,” he said. “But she’s a dedicated, hard-working player. She’s the kind of player you want on your team.”

 

CARDINAL NEWMAN CARDINALS

Last year’s record: 13-15 overall, 7-7 NBL

Overview: Cardinal Newman made the NCS playoffs with a young team last year. And this year? Somehow, the Cardinals got even younger, with a squad that includes eight sophomores, a freshman and three juniors. “Age-wise, we’re younger,” coach Monica Mertle said. “But there’s age, and there’s basketball experience. My starters have a year under their belt now.” Newman has four returning sophomore starters in Julia Bertolero, Londyn Inskeep, Phoebe Sheahan and Kiely Kiech, who earned NBL honorable mention as a freshman last year.

Player to watch: While Mertle emphasizes that any of her returning starters might step up on any given night, the Cardinals’ intensity starts with Kiech. “For anyone around her as a student and an athlete, her work ethic stands out,” Mertle said. “She wants to be great, and she’ll do everything she can to get better. And she does not like to lose. It doesn’t matter, she can be playing Monopoly; she does not want to lose.”

 

UKIAH WILDCATS

Last year’s record: 12-15 overall, 7-8 NBL

Overview: The Wildcats have more size than last year, and better outside shooting, too. Sounds like a recipe for stark improvement — or at least it will be if Ukiah’s young frontline players can learn to finish around the basket. “We’re getting about four points a game from our bigs so far this year,” coach David Downey said. “Once they develop and start finishing, we’ll be a lot better. We’re 10 times better at rebounding but they’re not scoring yet.” Haley Higgins, Kate Mayfield and Courtney Mee all return as starters for the Wildcats.

Player to watch: Mayfield is in her third year starting for Ukiah. The guard/forward swing player is a natural leader and a tenacious defender. “I try to put her on the other team’s best player, even though she’s only 5-7,” Downey said. “A lot of times she’s outsized, but she can jump out of the gym.”

 

RANCHO COTATE COUGARS

Last year’s record: 8-16 overall, 5-9 NBL

Overview: The good news for the Cougars as they seek to improve on last year’s mark is that they have nine players back from last year’s team. The bad news: Rancho Cotate still doesn’t have a lot of height, with no one over 5-foot-10. That’s a tough assignment against taller opponents like Santa Rosa and Montgomery. The Cougars will try to balance the scales with outside shooting and, coach Doug Haught hopes, improved poise against the press. Junior Nicole Guerrero, who sat out last year after transferring from Maria Carrillo, has been a big help so far.

Player to watch: Senior point guard Keilani Fronda is almost certainly Rancho’s best all-around player. “Her defense, her ball-handling, her ability to attack a defense with the dribble-drive — she creates opportunities for teammates,” Haught said. Unfortunately, Fronda tore a ligament in her finger at the start of the season and won’t return to action until after the new year.

 

WINDSOR JAGUARS

Last year’s record: 9-17 overall, 3-9 SCL

Overview: Though Windsor must contend with a new, more competitive league, coach Jeff Paul feels good about his team’s chances. “We were very young last year (with six sophomores) and took some lumps, but it has made us better,” he said. Paul’s priorities this season: improved defense, rebounding and more balanced scoring. Last year almost all of Windsor’s points came from Kerianne Noonan and Ashton Beth, who has graduated. This year the Jags are looking for offensive contributions from players like senior forward Rachel Shroyer, junior forward Hayden Turrini and junior guard Andrea Flinn.

Player to watch: Windsor’s hopes rise and fall with Noonan, a first-team all-SCL pick as a sophomore last year. Paul has installed junior Jenni Higashi at point guard this year to free up Noonan for scoring opportunities. At the same time, he believes his star has grown more trusting of teammates, and the Jaguars will be better for it.