NBL girls basketball preview: Experienced Panthers will be tested

Santa Rosa’s Katie Daly is back after earning All-Empire honors last season. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa’s Katie Daly is back after earning All-Empire honors last season. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

By PETER FOURNIER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

North Bay League girls basketball teams are challenging themselves in the preseason to prepare for crunch time in league play and perhaps more.

That should make for a pretty good year in the NBL.

Defending champion Santa Rosa returns most of its starters, but there could be surprises around the league.

Word is that Cardinal Newman appears to have a strong unit of both veterans and first-year players.

At Windsor, if coach Jeff Paul’s expectations are met, the Jaguars could wind up with the crown.

Here’s a breakdown of the NBL:

 

CASA GRANDE GAUCHOS

Last year’s record: 16-13, 9-5

Overview: The Gauchos graduated four seniors, but coach Dan Sack isn’t ready to make any predictions yet.

“We’re basically a lot of new pieces this year,” Sack said. “This early in the season … it’s still yet to be seen whether we come together and get there or whether we don’t.”

Sack said this year’s team is one of the best he has coached at Casa, noting that his players haven’t whined or asked for many breaks.

“It’s a fun group to coach,” he said. “I feel we’ve been able to get after it with a full agenda.

“If they come together and go together well, I think we can surprise some people.”

Player to watch: Sack said senior Brooke Santander has a perimeter shot but he wants her to attack the basket inside. He also knows she’ll be garnering more attention in her final season as a Gaucho.

“We know we have to get some people around to share the load,” he said.

 

CARDINAL NEWMAN CARDINALS

Last year’s record: 16-9, 7-7

Overview: Watch out for Cardinal Newman. That’s the sentiment being echoed by many NBL coaches.

But Cardinals coach Monica Mertle is taking it one step at a time the season after a first-round NCS Division 4 playoff loss to St. Patrick-St. Vincent.

“I would say our goal is to be like it always has: Just to get better every single day,” Mertle said.

Mertle said she expects a strong freshman class to make an impact once league play starts.

“In terms of basketball experience, they aren’t freshmen,” she said.

Player to watch: Mertle said she’s isn’t the type of coach to single out players.

“Sometimes you start saying names and that just takes the focus off the girls,” she said.

What’s the difference from last season, then?

“We’ve grown as a program, and we have improved as a program,” she said. “What it really comes down to is getting the individuals to function as one.”

 

SANTA ROSA PANTHERS

Last year’s record: 23-7, 12-2

Overview: The Panthers have reached the NCS Division 1 playoffs for five straight years, but last season’s quick exit left Santa Rosa wondering, ‘What if?’

“There was a carry-over from last season,” coach Steve Chisolm said. “I think that we felt that maybe we could have gone a little bit farther than we did. So there was some extra incentive during the offseason this year.”

The good news for Chisolm: Most of last year’s team is still intact, and he’s putting them through the toughest preseason schedule he’s ever had.

“We’ve got the nucleus of our team coming back this year,” he said. “We’ve got some really good freshmen come into the program. … We should be competitive for the next three to four years.”

Player to watch: Reigning All-Empire Player of the Year Katy Daily averaged 10.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 29 games last season. So far through two games in the preseason, she was still scoring at the same rate (10.8 points per game) and has increased her assists average to 9.3. Morgan Bertsch, the Panthers’ leading scorer last season, is averaging 14.8 points per game this season. Bertsch has signed a letter of intent to UC Davisto become the first Santa Rosa player, according to Chisolm, to play for an NCAA Division I program.

 

UKIAH WILDCATS

Last year’s record: 11-15, 3-11

Overview: Wildcats coach Dave Downey said his team shot 25 percent in the first three games of the 2013-14 preseason, but shot 40 percent in its past two games.

Ukiah lost the first three and won the past two.

“It was the shot selection we were taking in the first couple of games,” Downey said. “It was ridiculous. We’re starting to figure out the right things to do.”

With eight returning players, including four seniors, Downey is still trying to figure what everyone’s role is going to be, but the goal is clear.

“Our goal is making playoffs this year,” he said. “We’ve been slowly getting better, but we need to make the playoffs this year.”

Player to watch: Downey said the Wildcats revolve around 5-foot-6 guard Courtney Mee and 5-10 Ally Milone, both seniors

“We go how they go, basically,” he said.

 

WINDSOR JAGUARS

Last year’s record: 15-11, 6-8

Overview: Jeff Paul didn’t shy away from his expectations this season.

“We feel that in terms of our league, we are right there in the top four, should be in the top two,” he said. “We see our preseason games, all of our games, are winnable.”

The Jaguars lost to Dublin in the first round of the NCS Division 2 tournament in Paul’s first playoff berth in his three years as coach. He wants a home playoff game this year.

Player to watch: Paul said Kerianne Noonan is the Jaguars “catalyst,” but he couldn’t hold back a smile regarding three-year exchange student Jessica Barbosa of Portugal.

“She has made a step-function improvement over last year,” Paul said.

Paul played her at varsity her sophomore year because of her athleticism, but she played sparingly last year because she was just learning the game.

It didn’t take long for her to show how far she’s come.

“Over the offseason, she took off,” Paul said. “She dominates our practices, in terms of the post play. Last year, Kerianne, our leader, was getting a feel for her. Knew she had something, but the trust wasn’t there. This year the trust is there.

“We’re looking for big things from Jessica this year.”

 

MONTGOMERY VIKINGS

Last year’s record: 25-8, 11-3

Overview: The Vikings won the NBL tournament last year, and made it to the semifinals of the NCS Division 2 playoffs and the quarterfinals of the NorCal Championships.

That team, for the most part, is gone. Eight seniors graduated last season, and coach Stephen Bell has five this season. He also admits it’s a rebuilding year.

“We’re smaller than teams I’ve had in the past,” Bell said, “but what we can’t incorporate in height we’re trying to make up for in speed of the game, defensive pressure, opportunities to get into the transitions. We’re just trying to pick the pace up.”

Players to watch: Team captains Madison Nordby and Niambi St. Louis, who have won all-tournament honors a few times in the preseason already, look to set the pace on offense along with Haley Komrij and Colleen Black. Riley Britton looks to spark the defense, at least early on, Bell said.

“They all contribute in different ways,” he said. “I can single out one different player, but they all have different roles that they have to succeed.”

 

MARIA CARRILLO PUMAS

Last year’s record: 15-12, 8-6

Overview: The Pumas haven’t won a game in the preseason as of Friday, according to MaxPreps. They lost seven seniors after last season.

Kris Mahiri is in his first year as coach, replacing Chris Walton. Carrillo has lost to Montgomery, Petaluma and Clayton Valley Charter so far this season.

 

RANCHO COTATE COUGARS

Last year’s record: 5-17, 0-14

Overview: The Cougars are two wins away from matching their overall win total from last season. Rancho has defeated Clear Lake, El Molino and Clayton Valley Charter this season.

First-year coach Mario Newton says it’s a rebuilding year, but that hasn’t discouraged him, in part because he’s building his team on a “read and react” offensive system that focuses on everyone.

“It’s not catered to one or two players,” he said. “It’s catered to the whole team.”

As much as he wants his players to learn the new system, he wants them to enjoy playing the game, too.

“My goal is to make them all build their confidence,” he said. “We really focus on enjoying the game of basketball. I tell the girls if you don’t enjoy this sport, you shouldn’t be out there.”

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