By Justin Vigil-Zuniga and Tyler Wainfeld
Signal Staff Writers
Basketball season is getting underway in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Nine local high school girls’ teams will compete with various goals in mind, ranging from a CIF or state championship, to just winning some league games and gaining more varsity experience.
Two new head coaches will join the Foothill League this season. The two bring a vast experience of league and CIF championships to their new homes in the SCV.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the upcoming girls’ basketball season:
Canyon loads up for a strong season
The season will be full of challenges for the league champion Canyon Cowboys. However, overcoming adversity is all the team and coach Jessica Haayer know.
Haayer was diagnosed last year with brain cancer. The coach was still there for the team throughout the busy summer during radiation treatments and had her final treatments during the first week of school.
“I think it’s shown the kids what true toughness is, true grit,” Haayer said.
Haayer can now focus on the team that has a steep mountain to climb in the Foothill League and potentially the Division 1 playoffs.
Canyon seniors Koko Booker and Josie Regez return to the Cowboys and will be starters for the fourth consecutive year. Booker has been a force in the paint since day one, while Regez has shined as a three-level scorer.
Aneesa Sayan also returns for her senior season and brings strong perimeter shooting.
Haayer has also brought on freshman sensation Isabella Escribano, a talented local guard who played for the Mexican National 15U team.
The Canyon coach believes Regez and Escribano will be elite scorers in the Southern Section.
“(Escribano’s) incredible, she plays both sides of the court and she can score at will,” Haayer said. “Josie has taken her game to another level this season. She can score at all three levels and right now she’s pretty incredible.”
Taylor Ford will also be a new face to keep an eye on. Ford is a strong center with an outside shot.
The basketball IQ also stands out to Haayer as the team is picking up new things quicker and progressing at a fast rate.
“I feel like we’re ahead of the game,” Haayer said. “I’m talking about things that I didn’t talk about ’til December last year. They’re coming along. They’re gritty, they’re on it and diving for the 50/50 balls and thinking all of them are ours. Defense is the name of our game for sure.”
The Cowboys will be in tough games all year with stops at the Nike Tournament of Champions at Arizona, the Bishop Gorman Thanksgiving showcase in Las Vegas and the West Coast Elite tournament in San Francisco.
Canyon has the pieces but will have plenty of obstacles in front of the team as it strives for the program’s third straight league championship.
The Cowboys open up the season on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.
New season, same expectation for Hart
Hart girls’ basketball had a banner year in 2022-23 and head coach Jerry Mike is expecting another long season this year.
The Indians finished as co-champions of the Foothill League, along with Canyon, going 11-1 in league and 29-5 overall. That includes a trip to the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA championship game and a second-round appearance in the Division 2 state playoffs.
This year, the Indians have been placed in Division 1 for the section playoffs, a credit to both the former players and current players at Hart.
“We’ve made the climb from Division 3 to Division 1 in two years, and it’s a lot to do with them and how they work,” Mike said.
Junior Morgan Mack entered the conversation as one of the top players in the Santa Clarita Valley, if not the section, last season with her scoring prowess. Mike said that she has improved her game even further and will be the team’s leader on offense, defense and off the court.
“She’s a special player,” Mike said. “She’s getting offers, people are coming to watch her. We’ve had multiple visits from college coaches. She’s high IQ, super, super smart player.”
Also returning from last year and expected to start are seniors Arleigh Eav and Lily Cornejo as well as junior Andrea Aina. The final starting spot will likely be dependent on matchups, Mike said.
The Indians will play mostly in a 2-3 zone but Mike is willing to transition to a man-to-man defense when needed.
“We’re gonna mix it up to with some man and some other types of zones, but that’s our base defense,” Mike said.
Some of the role players Mike expects to have are juniors Emery Eav, Janelle Boozer and Drew Delahoussaye, along with sophomore Taylor Koebel. The latter is set to be one of the centers for the Indians and Emery Eav will likely play as a combo guard.
Delahoussaye could be one of the breakout players coming up from junior varsity, with Mike looking at her as one of the options to start. Boozer was a role player on varsity last year and is an all-around contributor for the Indians.
“She didn’t play a ton,” Mike said, “but she’s somebody who’s kind of carved out a niche for herself on the team with doing a lot of little things: rebounding, hustling and she has an interesting way of scoring. She kind of finds different angles and she’s kind of a unique player.”
Mike scheduled a tough season opener as the Indians are set to travel to Redondo Union on Tuesday, another Southern Section Division 1 power.
“We got a tough schedule ahead of us and a tough division,” Mike said. “We’re just looking forward to seeing what we can do.”
Valencia enters Honig era
The Vikings hired former Granada Hills Charter coach Jared Honig earlier this year, making him the third coach in four years at Valencia.
Honig inherits a 2023 playoff team full of all-league returners and experience.
“I think that they’re an energetic group,” Honig said. “I think we’re coming together as a team. They seem to really enjoy being around one another and they’re really buying into the system. Things will be a lot different than what they were doing last year. I think we’re getting better at each of the things that we’re looking at.”
The team features captains in every grade. Senior Libby Oxciano and sophomore Cara McKell return for Valencia. Oxciano will transition into point guard after her sensational junior season. Oxciano led the team with 15.4 points, 3.4 assists and 3.9 steals per game. McKell burst onto the scene and averaged 13.3 points and seven rebounds a game in her freshman year.
The other captains are junior Jayla Wilcox, a solid on-ball defender and shooter, and freshman center Kiera McLaughlin. Honig regards the center as one of the best all-around freshmen he’s ever coached.
“For me, that’s really nice, because after a year or two the team will really be perpetuating the culture,” Honig said. “There’ll be captains returning every year and that will get the system going.”
Honig is implementing his high-level system, which will take some time for the girls to adjust to. However, with his numerous high-IQ players, the team may pick up on things quicker than anticipated once the season starts.
Valencia’s last league title came in 2021 but Honig may have the squad to retake the Foothill League throne.
“I know Canyon and Hart have been probably the two standout teams over the last couple years, but we do have a goal of taking home the championship this year,” Honig said. “Coming from Granada, every time we’ve had a full season, we won the league championship. So I’m accustomed to that. It’s kind of just the standard. But it’s hard, it’s not easy. Just because it’s the standard doesn’t mean it comes easy. We’ll put in a lot of hard work every day.”
Valencia opens up the season this week at the Westlake Tournament.
Saugus gets full offseason with Falasca
The Centurions were a surprise success last season after being hammered with obstacles in the offseason and early in the year.
Saugus coach Anthony Falasca has instilled a whole new offense and defense in his first offseason with the team.
“This summer, spring and fall was the first time I got to put time in with them in the offseason,” Falasca said. “It’s been a lot of teaching, whistleblowing, teaching schemes, stuff that we didn’t have time for last year. I had to learn their offense as opposed to them learning mine. We have a whole new offense this year. Last year, we were more AAU. This year, there’s a lot more team concepts.”
The Cents return senior captains Destiny Onovo and Julie Phillips. Onovo was a monster on the boards and in the paint last season but will be utilized in the offense even more this season. Phillips has a strong all-around game and will start at the small forward spot. Sophomore EvaMarie Rios returns to Saugus after her breakout freshman campaign. Rios is the team’s starting point guard and is regarded as Falasca’s coach on the court.
Rios was one of four freshmen to play critical minutes last season. Samantha Cortez, Brianna Burroughs and Natalie Weathers will again be vital for Saugus in their sophomore seasons. The team will remain underclass-heavy and welcomes another three freshmen to the squad.
India Wright, a sophomore transfer, will also add to the mix of young, talented players.
Last year, the team, which had seven underclassmen, shot a ton of 3-pointers and averaged about 24 turnovers per game. Falasca will again lead seven underclassmen into the season but is looking to clean up the offense and cut the turnovers down to around 12 while finding the best shot possible this season.
“We probably won’t be as high of a volume 3-point shooting team,” Falasca said. “We’re not gonna take a good shot, we’re gonna find the best shot.”
Saugus reached the postseason last year and will aim for just that and more this season.
“I want a 20-win season,” Falasca said. “I put us in some tough tournaments this year. Our league is tough but I think we can sneak up on some teams. Last year we started 0-4, this year we’re not starting 0-4. As for identity, we’re gonna be tough to play, we’re gonna be like uno. We’ll have reverses, draw fours, skips, all these things that are gonna make you adjust to playing us. We’re going to be exciting to watch.”
Saugus begins the 2023-24 season this week at the Upland Tournament.
Trinity takes another preseason league title
The Knights were again awarded the Heritage League title in the offseason as their level of play is expected to soar above the competition.
Trinity will have a tough postseason ahead come February, but coach James DeMonbrun has scheduled a tough non-league schedule to get his team ready for the Division 2A playoffs. The Knights’ recent success has landed the program in a higher division than six other local teams.
DeMonbrun’s team will have some new faces but feature one of the SCV’s top talents, Emma Schaaf.
“We are going to be young in varsity experience,” DeMonbrun said. “We’re gonna rely heavily on Emma Schaaf. She has multiple scholarship offers from D2 schools that she’s working through. I believe she’s the best girls basketball player in the valley.”
Senior Iris Webber will be the team’s only other returning starter from last season. Webber has a ton of experience with the squad and adds some sharpshooting from behind the arc. Jianna Valestin also returns and will play important minutes for the Knights.
The Knights will have to wait for a pair of impact players as transfers Lucy Smith and Cassady Freude will be in the sit-out period. The two will take key minutes for Trinity the second they become eligible.
DeMonbrun says he has a great group of girls on the roster but will still need more time before figuring out ideal lineups. But as long as the Knights play some tough defense and play hard, their coach will be happy.
“As a coach, I always want how hard they play to stand out,” DeMonbrun said. “Especially when you’re going to have a short bench like we do. Every kid’s going to have to be productive. Basketball is a fast, aggressive game and you’re going have to play that. I think what you’ll see from our seniors is intelligence on the court. They’re going to play big minutes and navigate us throughout the game.”
The Knights were set to begin their season with an away game at Kennedy in Granada Hills on Monday at 5 p.m.
Golden Valley striving for playoffs
The Grizzlies are aching to get back into the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Head coach Charise Hall returns to lead the team with the postseason on the team’s radar. Hall’s team has never shown signs of backing down from a challenge, something that she knows will be vital this season.
“Their work ethic and resilience, they don’t back down,” Hall said. “I’ve got some real fighters on here. We’re definitely going to need that come league.”
The Grizzlies will be led by their backcourt, which features Akina Ma’at and Jaia Bryant. The two can score but also add tough defense. Janice Orantes also returns to the team and has stepped up a ton in Hall’s eyes, as the junior is becoming more aggressive and confident in her game.
The front court will showcase some newer and younger but taller Grizzlies.
Sophomore Lainey Connington and freshman Krysta Ezenwa will be athletic players for Hall down low.
Golden Valley may have the pieces to finally return to the playoffs but the team has a long road ahead of it.
The Grizzlies embark on the 2023-24 season on Friday at 5 p.m. at Vasquez High School in Acton.
West Ranch aims to respark program
The Wildcats announced CIF champion Paul Gross as their new head coach in May. Gross became the third coach in as many years at West Ranch but brings a resume that exceeds the Wildcat culture.
“I’m taking over a program that didn’t have a lot of success last year,” Gross said. “My goal is to get it back on the right track and establish the right culture for a positive experience for all the players.”
The team has a blend of returners along with some newer, younger girls.
“It’s a learning process. There’s a lot of stuff to work out but we have a great group of girls,” Gross said. “They’ve been positive, welcoming and they’re eager and excited to have a new voice and situation. They have a new approach to the game.”
West Ranch returns guards Alanna Topete and Aubrey Molina, the team’s only seniors. Topete has shined when attacking the basket over the past few seasons while Molina emerged last year as a strong distance shooter. Junior Aishwarya Sudan also returns, and will be another perimeter threat for Gross.
The first-year coach has a ton of juniors and sophomores battling for playing time, trying to make Gross’ fast-pace and high-effort lineup.
“One thing I’ve always taken pride in with my team is we always play hard,” Gross said. “We’ll be the extra-effort team that is diving for loose balls and aggressively rebounding. We also want an exciting up-tempo brand of basketball. We don’t want to slow it down.”
West Ranch opens up the season on the road on Tuesday at Santa Paula at 7 p.m.
Castaic keeps progressing, will have first senior class
Castaic will roster a smaller varsity lineup this season but will finally boast teams at all three levels as well as the program’s first senior class.
Coach Terra Palmer returns to the pup-Coyote program that will look to take another step in the right direction.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Palmer said. “They’ve come leaps and bounds. We’ve seen this how you ‘jump stop’ to now being efficient at the varsity level. The improvement has been tremendous. The kids are dedicated, have an amazing attitude and the right energy.”
Palmer admires her team’s dedication to the process knowing that Foothill League will again be a tall task to compete in, but the players remain committed.
Senior Leyna Lee will be a name to keep an eye on along with Alana Clark, a player who Palmer believes will consistently put points on board. Syrai Piper brings a ton of athleticism and has been noted as a sparkplug for Castaic.
“(Piper) is aggressive, athletic and one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever coached,” Palmer said. “She’s not gonna fill the stat sheet up with points but will give us everything else.”
Trinity Haddad will be the team’s point guard as her decision making and basketball IQ have impressed Palmer.
The coach knows she won’t be leading a powerhouse this season but is enjoying the process of watching her team grow every day.
“They give me hope for the future,” Palmer said. “The fact that we have separate teams is fantastic, we have enough ninth graders to feel good about the future. The amount of freshmen we got with our enrollment was surprising and a few of them have basketball backgrounds. It’s an exciting vision. They’ve already made strides and over the years I can see them being competitive.”
Castaic heads into year two of varsity play on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at home against the Lancaster Eagles.
Improved SCCS looks to take next step
Santa Clarita Christian head coach Larry Sulham is confident heading into the second season of the program’s restart.
With a gym full of returning faces for the Cardinals, Sulham is ready to push his players to play his style of basketball and, hopefully, pick up some more wins.
“We’re still a young team, six sophomores and three freshmen playing at the varsity level,” Sulham said. “So, we have a lot to learn, but the girls are working hard, they listen well and they’ve been responding, and I’m optimistic this year that we’re going to improve over last year.”
Returning for the Cardinals are senior Sabrina Banke and sophomore Emerson Funk, among others. Those two are expected to be the team leaders after gaining experience last year.
“Sabrina Banke, she was my top player last year,” Fulham said. “In league she averaged about, 15 points a game … Emerson Funk, she had a bit of basketball experience as a freshman last year, but this year she’s come back and she seems to have gained good confidence in her skills.”
Sulham also has a few new players who he hopes will make his team deeper. Freshmen Emily Hackett and Hailey Parks played under Sulham in junior high and know his system, while junior Kayla Patterson comes in after previously being home-schooled.
Patterson has worked hard to get integrated into an organized team, Sulham said, while Hackett and Parks should bring some firepower on both ends of the court.
Sulham isn’t expecting his team to be perfect, but with an increased emphasis on moving quicker with and without the ball and playing with athleticism, he’s aware that the Cardinals could be a surprise team in the Heritage League.
“This year, we’re looking to move the ball off the rebounds and off the scores faster to get down and get to the basket before the defense is set up,” Sulham said. “And defensively, we’re looking to play a little bit more full-court, try and see if we can tire the other team out a little bit for the second half.”