These moments don’t come along too often.
The Aptos girls basketball team knows this.
“This could be a pretty special season,” said Mariners senior guard Hannah Hocom. “I think all of us are excited for what we could become.”
With 10 players back, including four starters, from last year’s regional quarterfinalist team, Aptos knows this could be the year the program does something it has not since the 1982-83 season: play for a California Interscholastic Federation Northern California championship.
“We have the potential to go as far as we want to, as long as we stay strong and keep looking at the next game one at a time,” said Aptos junior point guard Gabby Giuffre. “We want to put up another one of those,” she said pointing up to the NorCal banner in the rafters of the school’s gym, “but we have a long way to go until that time comes.”
Aptos, ranked 35th in the state by maxpreps.com as of Thursday afternoon, isn’t the only team around the area that is determined to accomplish some history this winter.
In Watsonville, Pajaro Valley has hopes of winning the program’s first-ever league title. The Grizzlies have never finished higher than fifth in their 13 seasons as a varsity program. Star senior guards Jayleen Solorzano and Michelle Ibarra want to change that, and the recent league restructuring has given them a chance to reach their goal.
Pajaro Valley joined 32 other schools in the Pacific Coast Athletic League — a five-tiered equity league made up of the past members of the Monterey Bay League and Mission Trail Athletic League. The Grizzlies will be in the fourth-toughest division, the Santa Lucia, this season.
“We can never get over confident,” Solorzano said. “We can’t go based upon the past. We have to work hard and play our hardest all the time. We’ll see. It’ll be fun.”
Ceiba College Prep, Monte Vista Christian, North Monterey County, St. Francis and Watsonville are also members of the PCAL. Aptos, meanwhile, remains in the single-tiered Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League, where it will try to win back-to-back league championships for the first time since the ‘80s.
Here is a look at the seven local girls basketball teams:
The Mariners might have their most talented group in program history, but first-year head coach Chris Grieves said the 2018-19 season will still be filled with several challenges.
Their toughest tests will most likely come before and after their defense of their SCCAL championship. Aptos front-loaded its schedule with games and tournaments against state and national powers. So far the Mariners held their own against some of the best, scoring wins over Woodside Priory, Marin Catholic and Palo Alto.
Next up? Last year’s top ranked team in the country, Archbishop Mitty, which features Santa Cruz resident Haley Jones — the nation’s top college recruit who recently committed to play at Stanford.
They play the Monarchs at Presentation on Saturday at 3 p.m.
“That’s just one game in the preseason, but it’s definitely one game where we’re going to give it our all,” Giuffre said.
Giuffre is one of 10 returning players from last year’s Central Coast Section Division III runner-up and CIF NorCal D-III quarterfinalist team, which won 26 games for the second straight season.
The 5-foot-11 floor general kept busy after the conclusion of last year’s season, taking a visit to Oregon, attending camps at Gonzaga and Cal and earning an invite to try out for the women’s youth national team.
Chris Grieves is the new head coach at Aptos. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
“It definitely changes the way you see the game, knowing that there’s so many girls out there and it’s not just these 100 of us in California that are out here,” said Giuffre, who has focused on upping her basketball IQ over the offseason. “There’s 50 other states that have 100-plus girls trying to compete for something that you want. It opened my eyes. It gave me a little extra drive.”
Six-foot-1 junior forward Natalia Ackerman, the team’s leading scorer and shot blocker last season, and sharpshooting senior wing Abby Pardue (5-foot-3) also return to the starting lineup with Giuffre and Hocom (5-9), who will play for NCAA Division III New York University next year. Five-foot-10 junior center Rylee Mennie will try her best to replace four-year varsity starter Abbi Saxton, who averaged a team-high 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists as a senior last season.
The Mariners were hoping the return of senior forward Ananiah Chavez (5-6) and the addition of senior center Bella Stephens (6-0) would provide some front court depth, but both suffered early-season knee injuries. Chavez is not expected to return, but the Mariners are hoping Stephens will be back in the rotation in the near future.
Until then, Aptos will use its skill and speed to negate its lack of height like it did last season. The return of junior twin sisters Madison (5-8) and Emma Stefanini (5-8) on the wing, and the addition of freshmen guards Jasmine Ackerman (5-9) — Natalia’s little sister — and Jaylen Dang (5-5) gives coach Grieves confidence they can do just that.
“They don’t play like freshmen, and what I mean by that is they play with confidence,” Grieves said. “When you play with confidence, it doesn’t really matter what class your in.”
Randy Braga, a three-time CCS champion at St. Francis and a winning coach at Watsonville the last two seasons, will try to bring his winning touch to Ceiba College Prep’s young program.
The Spartans are in their third year of varsity hoops, and are a year removed from posting a 5-8 record in the Coastal Athletic League, which featured Pacific Collegiate School, Anzar, Oakwood, Marina, Trinity Christian, York and Kirby Prep.
In the PCAL Arroyo division, Ceiba will only see one new team: Pacific Point Christian, which took P.C.S.’s spot in the league’s lower division.
Braga, who stepped down from his post at Watsonville because of health reasons, said Anzar is expected to be the top team of the division with Marina, Oakwood and Pacific Point giving chase.
“But you never know how things will go,” Braga said.
“That’s why you play the games, right?”
Ceiba carries seven seniors, including Braga’s daughter, Fenesia, a 5-foot-10 forward who anchors the team’s defense in the paint. The Spartans also have a junior, two sophomores and freshman guard Kiana Lomeli, who plays beyond her years.
Seniors Summer Hashimoto and Ariana Gonzalez will also bring plenty of exprience for Ceiba.
With five sophomores and a freshman on the roster, the Mustangs are young, but longtime head coach Jennifer Keathley does not believe the team’s youth will stop it from competing against the best the PCAL Gabilan division has to offer.
“I think we’re right where we belong,” Keathley said.
Mackenzie Tellez (5-6), an all-league first team selection as a freshman last season, returns to run the point for M.V.C., and junior wing Madison Hill (5-8) is back to lead a deep group of scorers featuring sophomore Aleah Rafat (5-11), junior Angelina Cortes (5-8) and senior Angel Alcantar (5-0), who can also run the point when Tellez needs rest.
Rafat gives the Mustangs some versatility on defense with her athleticism, while 6-foot sophomore forward Sophie Allen and 6-foot-4 sophomore center Hannah Harvey provide length in the front court.
In all, M.V.C. returns nine from last season.
“We’re meshing really well together,” Hill said.
Allen is working her way back from an anterior cruciate ligament tear in her knee that robbed her of her freshman campaign. Keathley said she has been impressive in limited action.
“Even though it wasn’t her choice to be out for a year, it helped her game a lot because she got to watch,” Keathley said. “She learned a lot, and you can see it when she’s on the floor.”
The Mustangs advanced to the CCS playoffs for the seventh straight season after finishing in a four-way tie for fourth in the now-defunct MBL Gabilan division. They will again see MBL-G champion Seaside, runner-up North Salinas, third-place finisher San Benito and Gilroy in the PCAL-G. Notre Dame-Salinas, last year’s MBL Pacific division champion, was also placed in the league’s top tier.
“This team looks like it has a really amazing future ahead of it,” Tellez said. “We have a lot of amazing players who like to work together. We’re pretty confident that we can do really well this season.”
Priscilla Mora has returned to her old stomping grounds with the hopes of leading the Condors to their first league title since the 2010-11 season.
A 2012 graduate, Mora was named league M.V.P. during N.M.C.’s last league championship run. She went on to play at San Joaquin Delta College before transferring to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Mora will have a young group of players that last season took its lumps in the MBL-G — N.M.C. finished 12-13 overall and 3-9 in league action. Wing Faith Mora, guard Alyssa Gonzales and forward Naomi Hernandez are the lone returning seniors. Sophomore center Mikayla Villanueva and sophomore point guard Julianna Alvizo also return for N.MC., which will have to make up for the loss of bigs Jocelyn Cazarez and Cassady Healy.
The Condors will call the PCAL Mission division home, and will see plenty of familiar faces in the league’s second-toughest division.
Salinas also made the move down from the MBL-G to the PCAL-M, and the Condors have played the other four teams in the division — Alisal, Christopher, Alvarez and Watsonville — several times in the recent past.
A year after averaging a little over 20 points per game, Solorzano, an all-league first team selection last season, has returned as an improved scorer, passer and defender.
“Obviously, she can do it all,” said Pajaro Valley second-year head coach Lupe Quintero. “That girl, she’s going to be there at 6 a.m. in the gym all by herself working on her game. She’s phenomenal.”
And this season the Grizzlies’ star point guard has some help. Along with Ibarra’s improved scoring capabilities, Pajaro Valley has also been bolstered by the defense of junior wing Caitlan Paat. Junior forward Alexandra Romero has also improved her game since the conclusion of last year’s 7-16 season.
“I trust my teammates and I know they can do as well as I can,” said Solorzano, who plans to play hoops in college.
Though the Grizzlies finished last in the MBL-P last season, they were competitive in nearly every game. Seven of their 11 league losses were by single digits, including a 48-43 heartbreaker in overtime against league champion Notre Dame-Salinas in their season finale.
Pajaro Valley senior point guard Jayleen Solorzano (5) leads a well-rounded group that is expected to challenge for a title in the PCAL-Santa Lucia. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
Monterey will be their lone familiar league opponent when they start PCAL Santa Lucia play in the new year. Santa Catalina, Greenfield, Gonzales and P.C.S. will join the ‘Dores and the Grizzlies in the league’s fourth-toughest division.
Pajaro Valley, which relies on its pressure defense and wants to run in transition for easy buckets, is expected to be near the top of the PCAL-SL with P.C.S. and Monterey.
“We have to take league and we have to go to CCS this year,” Ibarra said. “I want to go to CCS as a senior, and I want the other girls to have that experience because we’re not going to be here next year. Jayleen [Rocha] and [Romero] are going to take over next year, and I want them to play up a division and continue to build the program.”
St. Francis is no longer a member of the SCCAL, leading scorers Janiya Sevilla and Chloe Deleisseguess have graduated and coach Meghan Garcia is gone.
The expectations, however, remain the same for the Sharks: compete in league and make a deep run in the CCS D-V playoffs.
“We lost some big pieces and we have a lot of learning to do,” said senior point guard Janessa Yniguez, now in her fourth varsity season. “But we’ve already improved plenty over the first few games.”
Junior forwards Grace Kovacs and Darlene Tuscano join Yniguez as one of five returning players, and interim head coach Adam Hazel, who took over three games into the season after Garcia was let go, also received a big boost with the return of 6-foot-1 senior center Tanya Gallo, who took last season off.
Sophomore guards Mariah Lyle and Audrey Hernandez also return for St. Francis, which last season finished 13-12 overall and advanced to the CCS D-V semifinals before losing to eventual champion Woodside Priory — also the CIF runner-up in D-IV.
“They played quality minutes in the playoffs and that really helped their development because that jump from J.V. to varsity is a really big jump,” Hazel said of Lyle and Hernandez. “Having that experience really gives them that mindset of, ‘I’m a returning varsity player.’”
St. Francis senior point guard Janessa Yniguez leads a scrappy bunch into the PCAL-Cypress this winter. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
The Sharks, who also carry freshman Aurora Tershy, will compete in the PCAL Cypress, the league’s third toughest division. Stevenson, Carmel, King City, Pacific Grove and Soledad are all expected to be in the chase for the league title along with St. Francis, which has not won a championship since the 2010-11 season.
Hazel, the school’s athletic director and head football coach before that, has tried his best to not change too much since taking over, instead letting the girls flow on offense and preaching effort on defense.
“As long as we keep sharing the ball on offense and playing tough defense, we’ve got a chance,” Hazel said. “I feel good about going up against anybody.”
The Wildcatz might be flying under the radar heading into the PCAL-M season.
Graduating four starters and swapping head coaches will do that to a team.
“I keep telling our girls, ‘don’t think like that,’” said Watsonville senior wing Ruby Galvan, the team’s lone returning starter. “We have a good team. Every single high school loses seniors. We’re all in this together. There’s no reason why we can’t be as good as last year’s team.”
Watsonville last season finished 16-10 overall. It not only returned to the CCS playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season, but secured its first postseason win since 2007-08.
But leading scorer Savanah Quintana in now at Cabrillo College, top rebounder and shot blocker Julisa Vega plays for NCAA D-III Southern Vermont University and the team’s best distributor and supplementary scorer Evelyn Rios is over the hill at Gavilan College.
New head coach Zach Cook, previously at N.M.C. for nine seasons until 2016, has made a point of telling the girls to focus on what they can control, like their effort and the team’s chemistry.
Ruby Galvan, left, is the lone returning starter for Watsonville this winter. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
“This group of girls has just bought in so well,” said Cook, who took the Condors to the playoffs seven times and earned coach of the year honors three times. “And we’re not even scratching the surface of what our potential is yet. That’s nice. We’re so young.”
Galvan (5-6), who averaged 6.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season, and Jennifer Vasquez (5-7), who primary saw playing time last season because of her defense, are Watsonville’s only two seniors. The duo leads an inexperienced group of seven returners, which also features junior forwards Janet Arias (5-8), Alexandra Swindle (5-4) and Alondra Lopez (5-11) and sophomore guards Andreina Lopes (5-4) and Daisy Ortiz (5-5).
“Our defense is there and we don’t have just one shooter,” Vasquez said. “We share the ball, and that’s what I like.”
The other six are first-year varsity players.
Five-foot-10 forward Andrea Espitia gives the Wildcatz some size in the post, and so, too, does 5-foot-9 freshman Lucynell Rosales and 5-foot-9 sophomore Jasmine Vaca-Carlos. Sophomore guards April Alvarado (5-5) and Tea Villalta (5-5) provide depth.
Cook was also blessed with promising 5-foot-3 point guard Rylee Gomez, who might already be the team’s best finisher around the rim despite her diminutive size. She can also run the offense from time to time, and plays tough defense.
“She’s pretty automatic,” Cook said. “She’s special. ”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jayleen Solorzano (Sr.)
School >> Pajaro Valley
Position >> Point guard
Why she’ll be great >> High-scoring senior can also pass and defend with the best of them
Michelle Ibarra (Sr.)
School >> Pajaro Valley
Position >> Wing
Why she’ll be great >> A deadeye shooter from beyond the arc, Ibarra is a nice foil for Solorzano
Natalia Ackerman (Jr.)
School >> Aptos
Position >> Center/Forward
Why she’ll be great >> Six-foot-1 big led the Mariners in points, steals and blocks per game last year
Gabby Giuffre (Jr.)
School >> Aptos
Position >> Point guard
Why she’ll be great >> A year after averaging 13.9 points, the 5-foot-10 guard has refined her game
Hannah Hocom (Sr.)
School >> Aptos
Position >> Guard/wing
Why she’ll be great >> Hocom has hit at least 72 3-pointers in each of the last three seasons
Janessa Yniguez (Sr.)
School >> St. Francis
Position >> Point guard
Why she’ll be great >> A solid defender with a quick first step on offense, Yniguez is S.F.’s go-to option
Mackenzie Tellez (So.)
School >> M.V.C.
Position >> Point guard
Why she’ll be great >> An all-league first team selection last season, Tellez has a very high ceiling
Madison Hill (Jr.)
School >> M.V.C.
Position >> Wing
Why she’ll be great >> An high-energy player that doesn’t care about stats and does everything
Rylee Gomez (Fr.)
School >> Watsonville
Position >> Guard/Wing
Why she’ll be great >> A solid finisher around the rim who plays wise beyond her years
Ruby Galvan (Sr.)
School >> Watsonville
Position >> Wing/Forward
Why she’ll be great >> The lone returning starter from Watsonville’s CCS qualifying team