The 2017 Foothill League girls basketball season opens Tuesday, with the consensus among coaches being a closely contested fight for first place between four-time defending champion Valencia High and last year’s second-place team, Canyon High
While these teams are looked at as a lock to finish first and second respectively, the pecking order from that point becomes a puzzle.
Hart — with the addition of Annie Christofferson to an already strong core of Nicole Benz and Natalea Daily — is projected to take third place, but will be tested by Maryrose Elias and the young Saugus Centurions.
Golden Valley will be guided by first-year head coach Galbert Connor, who’s success in his one-year stint at Monroe High School has Golden Valley poised to challenge any Foothill contender even without star player Devonae Hutchison.
West Ranch, which beat Saugus in preleague play, won’t be far behind the pack, as a tough schedule against top-tier Southern California teams have the Wildcats ready for league play.
Here’s a look at all six teams in the order they finished last season:
Similar to seasons past, Valencia has had a stellar start to the season. The Vikings have jumped out to an 11-4 overall record, including a 46-45 victory over Canyon High in the championship round of the Burroughs Magnolia Park Optimist Tournament on Dec. 10.
The preseason matchup against the Cowboys gave Valencia a peek at what to expect against its toughest Foothill foe. For Vikings coach Jerry Mike, however, this was not the team’s focus for the game.
“We just looked at it as the championship game of a tournament,” Mike said. “It was good to remind ourselves of what Canyon’s strengths are and what we need to work on, but we’re still 0-0 in league.”
The Vikings, ranked 12th in the season’s first CIF Southern Section Division 1AA poll, are led by three standout seniors in 2016 All-Santa Clarita Valley Player of the Year Kayla Konrad, Ashlee Ane and Kenadee Honaker, a senior guard who recently returned from injury.
As was expected at the start of the season, Konrad has been a key to Valencia’s success. The UC Davis commit leads the team in both points (18.3 per game) and rebounds (11.1). She had 18 points and nine rebounds in the game against Canyon.
“She’s one of the best players in Southern California,” Mike said of Konrad.
A successful team does not rely solely on one player, and the other members of Valencia’s program ensure they won’t have to. Ane averages the most assists of any Vikings player (4.5), while Honaker’s propensity for stealing the ball causes problems for opposing offenses.
Jade Jordan, another senior in Valencia’s starting five, provides a physical presence in the post from the power forward position. Chyanne Pagkalinawan, on the other hand, facilitates the basketball with finesse as the team’s starting point guard.
The Vikings went a perfect 10-0 in league play last year. This culminated in a trip to the quarterfinals of the Division 1AA playoffs, where they lost 43-41 to West High School of Torrance.
Valencia will begin to defend its Foothill title at home against West Ranch.
The Cowboys (9-6 overall) put on a show last year, finishing as runner-up to Newbury Park in the CIF-Southern Section Division 2AA playoffs and pushing all the way to the second round of the state playoffs.
The team is desperate to get another shot at a Southern Section title, but the process may be a bit more difficult than last year’s as the team has been bumped up to Division 1AA.
Twelve of the 15 players on last year’s roster are returning, including All-CIF player Rachel Bowers and All-SCV first-teamer Talia Taufaasau, both of whom are juniors. Bowers, a 6-foot-3 center, has averaged 11.9 points per game and 9.8 rebounds through 15 games, while Taufaasau is averaging 11.2 points.
Other key returners for the Cowboys include Daisy Cardenas (9.4 points per game), Angelina Puno, Alaina Garcia and Krystal Amato. There’s a flock of talented underclassmen to back them up, too.
Canyon pushed itself in preleague play, stocking up on Division 1 competition and traveling to Arizona for the Nike Tournament of Champions, where they finished 2-2 against some of the nation’s best teams.
“It was a learning experience,” Bowers said. “We did go 2-2, but the games that we won, they were helpful for us and then the games that we lost, we figured out what we need to work on now.”
Their biggest competition this year will be Valencia, which was the only team to hand them league losses last season.
Coach Terra Palmer considered Annie Christofferson part of the Indians family as soon as Christofferson donned the red and black jersey.
Christofferson, who joins the Hart girls basketball program after transferring from West Ranch, provides a pure scorer unlike any Palmer has ever coached.
However, due to CIF transfer rules, the junior had been unable to see any playing time until the Indians’ 61-50 loss to Village Christian of Sun Valley on January 3. She scored 10 points in her debut.
This, coupled with injuries to Nicole Benz and junior varsity call-up Annie Cruz, has left Hart little time to build the team chemistry Palmer feels they need to compete at a high level. As a result, Hart finds itself with a 5-9 overall record.
With a fully healthy Benz and the newly activated Christofferson finally taking the court together, Hart not only has one of the most potent scoring duos in the league, but can also work on what Palmer considers the most important part of the team’s growth as they find their footing before beginning league play at home against Saugus.
“Instead of being in the natural flow of the game, it feels a little forced,” Palmer said in reference to players feeling the need to account for Benz’s and Christofferson’s absences. “They have to back off from that and let the game come to them.”
When Benz has been able to be on the floor during preleague play, she has provided the scoring punch that was expected of her. As such, she leads all Indians in points per game.
Fellow senior and team captain, Natalea Daily continues to surprise opponents with her ability to gather rebonds, posting a triple double earlier this year in which the 5-foot-5 guard grabbed 18 rebounds.
Abby Copley and Trudy Larkins give Hart a sense of stability as it tries to figure out its identity. Copley, who comes off the bench, can create her own offense with the ability to get to the basket at will.
Larkins, at 5-10, provides size and strength on offense and defense, and with the ability to score from the post and on jump shots, she helps space the floor for the Indians’ offense.
Palmer knows her team has the talent to take on any Foothill opponent, and with the roster now at full strength, Hart can begin the process of becoming a cohesive unit.
“We’re still putting everything together,” Palmer said. “This is a team with a lot of potential, but it still hasn’t clicked yet.”
A stressful preleague schedule saw the Centurions play 10 games in 12 days and has the team sitting with an 8-9 overall record.
In the grueling span of games, Saugus nearly swept through the Heritage Christian Basketball Tournament and gave the hosting Warriors team all it could handle as the Centurions finished in second place with a 65-63 loss in the title match.
Saugus has also had the opportunity to face a Foothill League opponent in West Ranch, a game in which Saugus was able to snatch a brief lead before ultimately falling 58-48.
Despite the defeat, coach Jason Conn found the game to be a good introduction into league for a team that fields four freshman, three of whom are starters.
Getting the younger players acclimated to the speed of varsity basketball, as well as integrating the lessons learned from every game, proved difficult in the tightly packed schedule as practice time came at a premium.
After Saugus defeated Poly High of Sun Valley, 70-32 on December 30, the Centurions finally found time to hammer home their points of improvement before their next game.
The result was a 29-26 victory on the road over Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks, which ranks 10th in the latest CIF-Southern Section Division 2A poll.
“After ten straight games, we finally got a day of practice,” Conn said. “We worked on our defense. Look what happened.”
Saugus’ ability to weather this storm is due in large part to senior guard Maryrose Elias. The standout Centurion’s work ethic and dedication to basketball has allowed her to become a team leader — and to average 21 points per game so far.
“She doesn’t watch soap operas or TV shows, she watches basketball,” Conn said of Elias’ love of the sport.
Conn also credits the resiliency, speed, and strength of freshmen Libbie McMahan and Monique Febles as reasons why Saugus was able to endure the early gauntlet of games.
The Centurions open the Foothill play at Hart. The game not only marks the first league game for many of Saugus’ young players, but for Conn, it also begins a road to the team’s future success.
“We’re a young, up-and-coming program,” Conn said. “In a few years, we’ll be a major contender.”
West Ranch finds itself in a transition period under the tutelage of first-year head coach Carlos Fandino and in the absence of Anne Christofferson, who transferred to Hart a season after leading the Wildcats in scoring.
The adjustment has been even more difficult due to a strong schedule that has had West Ranch playing teams ranked near the top of their respective CIF Southern Section Divisions: Camarillo (2nd in Division 2AA) and Pasadena (2nd in D4AA).
These factors account for why the Wildcats finished the preseason with a 5-12 overall record as they head into their first Foothill League game of the season at Valencia.
Fandino feels no dread or despair due to the slow start to the season, and uses the tough losses — as well as the hard-earned 45-43 victory against Royal High School (5th in D3AA) — as growing opportunities for his team.
“When you play the best competition, it challenges you, and you have to be mentally strong,” Fandino said. “These games have shown us our weaknesses and where we can build to get stronger.”
How West Ranch accounts for the loss of Christofferson has been a continuing question up to and throughout the preseason. Seniors Ashley Woodhouse and Izzy Singer have seamlessly stepped into leadership roles, taking pressure off of the young Wildcats team.
Age is not a reflection of ability for West Ranch, however, as Fandino credits sophomores Eleanor McQuillen and Aaliyah Austin, as well as junior Etana Sesay off the bench, as pivotal pieces in the team’s rebuilding process.
Fandino faces a tough test in his first Foothill game against the league’s fiercest team, but he is unfazed as West Ranch continues to find its way.
“This is a very young team,” Fandino said. “They’re getting better every game, and it’s been a pleasure to see them grow.”
Coach Galbert Connor takes over at Golden Valley a season after improving Monroe High School’s overall record from 4-13 to 8-9 and is looking to replicate that success with the Grizzlies.
Due to a season-ending injury to 2016 All-SCV second-teamer Devonae Hutchison, however, Conner is left without one of his most important players.
Even in Hutchison’s absence, Golden Valley has had a successful preleague run, posting a 7-5 overall record and taking a 50-47 overtime win in the Cleveland New Year’s Classic Tournament over Arleta High School (10-4 overall).
Four-year varsity player Serene Tyus has helped keep the Grizzlies ship afloat, acting as the leader on the court and adding a vocal presence that Conner wants to see from all of his players.
“I tell them that their voice is a part of their defense,” Conner said. “Tyus has been encouraging the girls to talk and not be reserved.”
Despite a more quiet demeanor, senior Alexxys Banuelos has also stepped up in the stead of Hutchison, setting a tone of intensity on both offense and defense that the rest of the team is beginning to follow.
As it was with Monroe, Connor takes the reigns of a Grizzlies team that had only one league win the season before he arrived. His goal of improving Golden Valley’s Foothill record will begin against Canyon.
Although the Grizzlies are viewed as the underdog in this matchup, Conner believes his team has the talent and the spirit to make a statement win.
“We’re looking to surprise some people,” Conner said.
Signal Staff Writer Haley Sawyer contributed to this story.