A rollercoaster of a girls’ basketball offseason and season was turned into a positive somehow at Saugus.
The Centurions welcomed their new head coach just two days before their first scrimmage of the season, and started 0-3, but still managed to make the playoffs with five freshmen on the squad.
On Oct. 21, long-time head coach Jason Conn resigned after seven years at the helm of the program. Conn led Saugus to a pair of Foothill League titles and a CIF semifinals appearance in 2018.
The Centurions were without a head coach with just over three weeks until their season opener with the Burbank Bulldogs. The season could’ve been perceived as lost already from the outset, but for freshman point guard EvaMarie Rios, the absence of a head coach brought the team together.
“At first, it was a confusing point in time,” Rios said. “As a team, I feel like we kind of got over it because we weren’t as close back then but that kind of brought us closer. And for that two-week period where there was no head coach, we just really bonded out at practices. We kind of held our practices to ourselves, we came up with our own things to do and I feel like it was very productive.”
Senior captain Kristen Kai also left the team for personal reasons but was able to return during the head coach hiatus. Kai cited assistant coach Megan Reck as the glue who held everything together.
Former assistant coach Anthony Falasca heard about the opening quickly. The soon-to-be head coach recalls his phone blowing up with calls and texts from local parents and coaches about the position.
Falasca and Conn had known one another for decades, dating back to the early 2000s when Conn coached Falasca at Canyon. Falasca spent a few seasons as an assistant to Conn at Saugus but stepped down last season to spend more time with his family.
Falasca called the Centurion administrators to apply for the position, and after an 8:30 a.m. interview the following day, Falasca was hired by 11:30 a.m.
The new-head coach was verbally hired, but in the same sentence was told he had a game the next day. A handful of players already knew Falasca from years past at Saugus or from club teams, but the Centurions officially met their new head coach that night.
Falasca entered the year with minimal expectations. Saugus had a tough schedule ahead, a tough Foothill League, and the five freshmen in the lineup. However, it didn’t take long for the coach to see that some of his girls certainly didn’t play like freshmen.
“I had heard rumors that some of the freshmen were pretty good and obviously knew of some of those players,” Falasca said. “So we knew we had a decent core. But with a decent core of three or four, you still need some other pieces to step in and play roles. When we played our first tournament in Westlake, Shannon and Eva both played not at all like freshmen.”
Saugus had no practices before its first scrimmage with Falasca and just seven together before the season opener, a tournament game with Burbank. The Cents fell in their first three games to future CIF playoff teams, but even with the odds not in Saugus’ favor, the losses were a surprise to Falasca.
“We didn’t win a game in that first tournament,” Falasca said. “I have to say I was shocked because I really thought we were gonna come in there and knock two or three of those teams out and compete for the championship. And that was just me being overzealous or not really knowing our team yet.”
Saugus entered league play 0-3 and welcomed the unbeaten 5-0 Valencia Vikings. The freshmen duo of Rios and Shannen Wilsen shined as the Centurions shocked the Vikings with a 58-52 win. Wilsen poured in a team-high 20 points and two steals while Rios scored 16 points and brought down eight rebounds.
Wilsen became an all-around standout for Saugus, finishing top three on the team in points, rebounds and steals.
Co-captain Destiny Onovo was a force in the paint throughout the year. Onovo fought for every rebound and finished just shy of a double-double average along with 3.1 steals a game. Falasca regards Onovo as “someone you’ll never have to ask to work harder.”
The Cents blew by West Ranch before their biggest test yet, a road trip to one of the toughest teams in the section, the Hart Indians.
Saugus played a tight game, with multiple lead changes before Hart pulled away in the fourth quarter. Falasca believed his team could’ve won the game but saw a turning point in that game. The 7-0 Indians hadn’t trailed in a game yet in the season but were fighting to hold off Saugus. Falasca realized again that his young core didn’t play like freshmen, when noticing five freshman Centurions were on the floor against Hart, the most important game of the year so far. Hart prevailed but Saugus felt it was ahead of schedule in its lightning-quick rebuild.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a rebuilding here because we had individual talent,” Falasca said. “My worry was, would we be able to come together as a team and when would we? I didn’t know if it would take 10 games or 20 games. Everyone wants to win the Foothill League and make the playoffs. I just really wanted to learn who we were by the end of the season and have the girls buy into, you know, our philosophy and what we wanted Saugus girls’ basketball to be in the future.”
The Centurions bought in and grew closer as the season progressed. Team dinners were a must for Saugus as the Falasca family consistently welcomed its extended blue and silver family into their home.
“I would say when we started to have team dinners, we really started bonding over them,” Kai said. “We began to trust each other more and that really showed on the court.”
Players also brought their own family members into the team dinners as all were welcome.
“My wife loves having the kids over,” Falasca said. “Parents and siblings came over, so it wasn’t just the girls and that’s ideally what we want this to be. As coaches we spend a lot of time away from our immediate family. So, if I can have my basketball family be around my immediate family, I get the best of both worlds.”
Saugus won six of its next eight games after Hart, with losses coming to the CIF champion La Salle Lancers and playoff team Calabasas Coyotes.
The Centurions had plenty of stars but needed some more role players. Freshman guard Sam Cortez fit the bill while being regarded as the player who stepped up most for her team.
“Sam’s a lightning bolt,” Falasca said. “If we needed a defensive stop, we looked to her. It took two games to realize who she was. She didn’t care about scoring, she was just eager for any role. She went from bench player with light minutes to starter averaging close to 10 points a game in the final stretch of the season.”
Saugus took some losses but found wins when the team needed them. The Centurions officially clinched their playoff spot on Jan. 24, after a 66-22 rout of Golden Valley and finished the regular season 14-13.
“In the beginning we were kind of overlooked,” Rios said. “But I feel like we overcame that and being able to make the playoffs really proved us.”
The Cents’ playoff run was cut short on the road by the undefeated Golden League champion Highland Bulldogs, but Falasca saw his team remain competitive with yet another tough matchup for his young team.
“We played teams that probably thought they should have beat us by 30,” Falasca said. “And we just competed. When you compete in your sport, you’re in any game.”
It was tough to swallow the loss at the time, but Falasca sees the season for it was, an incredible accomplishment.
A team with two seniors, five freshmen, a last-second-hired first-year head coach, in a tough league, made the playoffs in the fourth-toughest division in the sport.
The team will look to retain its talented core but will graduate seniors Allison Aubrey and their captain Kai.
“We’ve become a family,” Kai said. “I didn’t talk to them that much before, but they grew on me. And at the end of the season, we became a big family. After the last game, we were in the locker room, crying and hugging each other. It was great.”
The head coach will aim to take a quick next step for the program. The team now has a ton of competitive varsity experience, which may pay dividends heading into next season.
Falasca, a man who once never saw himself becoming a head coach or a girls’ coach, is proud of his team’s accomplishments through the wild ride that was the 2022-23 season.
“I’m glad that I get to call myself the head coach of the Saugus girls’ basketball program because I think as men, we have a responsibility to empower these young ladies to do more and be more than what they think they can be. I try in every practice and every game to get them to achieve more than what they think they’re capable of.”
The Centurions will be pushed in the right direction on and off the court with Falasca at the helm. However, expectations, much like the team’s talent and recognition, may be on the rise at Saugus.
“My goal is that we get a chance to compete for a CIF and a state championship,” Falasca said. “Whether that’s next year or the year after that. Hopefully Saugus will be able to bring in kids that want to compete at that kind of level because that’s where I see us going.”