Mendocino women ready to add to magical season

Photo by THOMAS DELGADO Guard Elisa Vargas will play an important role for the Eagles when they open tournament play.

Guard Elisa Vargas will play an important role for the Eagles when they open tournament play.


In a milestone season, Mendocino College women’s basketball aims for another achievement — a state playoff win.

Setting a record for victories that carried Mendocino to its first conference title, the Eagles take on Sierra College today in the program’s first state playoff game. Mendocino is the underdog on the road, a role the Eagles embrace.

“Our team is pumped and ready to go. To win we have to play with heart,” said Elisa Vargas, a freshman from Cardinal Newman and the Eagles’ leading scorer.

Returning starter Cara Watts, out of Windsor, figured this year’s team could surpass the last season’s breakthrough squad that just missed the postseason.

“We knew we would be stronger. We thought we would definitely go further,” said Watts, the Eagles’ primary post player.

“A lot of players stepped up. Our whole team is really confident.”

Mendocino’s potential for success was evident from the beginning of fall workouts. An unselfish streak and competitive edge helped the team come together and play strong early in the season.

Making the extra pass and helping on defense, grinding for rebounds despite lacking size, Mendocino pushes its limits each night out.

“Our team’s strengths lies in the true grit and fight within our players and team as a whole,” said Mendocino coach Jody Steliga, a former Ukiah high standout who played at Mendocino. “The team has full trust in each other, knowing they will do whatever they can to win.”

Win the Eagles did, setting a school record on the way to the program’s first Bay Valley Conference title.

Mendocino sealed the league’s automatic postseason spot by defeating Laney College late in the regular season, finishing 19-7 overall.

“It was huge. It was just the best feeling ever,” Watts said.

What the Eagles have done well from the start is score with a balanced attack.

Four players average double figures, led by Vargas and Crystal Cervantes, from Stockton.

“We rarely had the same leading scorer every night, and it made our players tougher to scout. If one player was struggling, someone else would swoop in to take on the role,” Steliga said.

Also leading at point guard, Vargas has helped the Eagles soar to new heights.

“Elisa really controls the tempo in key situations of close games,” Steliga said.

Vargas has put in the work to adapt to the faster, more physical college game,

Improved dribbling and post-up skills have helped Vargas become a scoring threat who also makes teammates better.

“I grew in how to be a leader on and off the court,” she said.

Tops on last season’s scoring sheet as a forward, Watts now is Mendocino’s anchor in the post. While giving up some inches and plenty of pounds to opponents, Watts has become a more complete player.

“It was definitely a big change,” she said.

“I had faith in my teammates and I just do as much dirty work as I can for my team.”

On a team of guards, Watts battles underneath and helps create turnovers in the middle of Mendocino’s press.

“Our squad came into the year as a giant group of scorers, which we are often good at,” Steliga said.

“But what has really driven us in the tough times and carried us to wins in tight situations have been our defensive possessions.”

Unselfish on offense, improving on defense, Mendocino reached the team’s goals of winning the Bay Valley and reaching the California Community College Athletic Association playoffs.

In this monumental season, Mendocino is having fun.

“We are a pretty entertaining team,” Watts said.

“The way we play as a team, it’s pretty inspiring. We came from nothing.”


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