Each winter, the Foothill League girls and boys basketball teams are flooded with new talent. This year, that talent was so apparent that the Signal Sports Award for “Newcomer of the Year” is shared between a girls basketball player and a boys player.
Canyon girls basketball’s Chidinma Okafor and Saugus boys basketball’s Nathan Perez split this year’s award and although they were among the best up-and-coming athletes in the Santa Clarita Valley, they both have different identifiable styles.
Perez was a dynamic shooting guard in his freshman year. At 6-foot-2, Perez was 37% from 3-point range and averaged 17.2 points per game, which ranked him second on the team.
“Working on my strength and finishing and getting to the basket,” Perez said of what he improved on this season. “I like to shoot the ball so I’m working on all three levels to score.”
The 6-foot-3 Okafor contributed on defense as much as she did on offense in her junior year and first year on varsity. She averaged a double-double with 13.1 points per game and 12.7 rebounds per game. Okafor also logged 149 defensive rebounds and 104 offensive rebounds.
“I think definitely my speed because the game is faster and my defense because there’s many people, a variety of people when you play,” Okafor said of this season’s improvements. “So I had to work harder and I’m a better defender.”
Perez started playing basketball with his dad when he was seven years old, shooting around at parks around town. He says his dad is still his motivation to play basketball and is in attendance for all his games.
“He works so hard for me,” Perez said. “He works two jobs so I want to work hard for him on the court.”
Okafor began playing basketball in elementary school after a growth spurt and watching her older brother play. She joined a travel team in fifth grade but wasn’t seriously dedicated to it.
Her passion for the sport grew throughout junior high, then on Canyon’s freshman and JV teams. But when she got to varsity this season, her confidence bloomed.
“Honestly, at first I was a bit scared and nervous, but once I started playing I became comfortable playing varsity basketball,” Okafor said. “It was fun to get to know the coaches and my teammates and play with them.”
Okafor and Perez both aspire to play college basketball, but know they have a lot to accomplish yet in their time at the varsity level.
Perez said he wants to get even more consistent with shooting in addition to pulling down more rebounds and getting his teammates involved with more assists in the coming season. Okafor wants to improve all around in basketball and is striving for at least a 4.5 GPA in the classroom to finish strong in her final year as a Cowboy.
“Canyon, of course, the history, there’s many great players and definitely it pushes you to become better and work hard and hopefully get my name on the wall at the gym, so it definitely pushes you to become a better player.”
Even though Okafor and Perez play for different teams and have different styles, they both continued the trend of exceptional new talent in Foothill League basketball that can only keep growing.