Having 13 losses didn’t matter too much to American Canyon girls basketball head coach Angela Davis before her team opened Solano County Athletic Conference play.

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American Canyon Girls Basketball

American Canyon senior Trinity Tapia drives past Vintage's Kate Ilsley (12) during a Jan. 2 road game.

Davis could have scheduled easier nonconference opponents in her second season at the varsity helm – the Wolves’ preseason foes averaged seven nonleague wins apiece – but it was more important to her for her players to be battle-hardened than to pick up easy W’s.

She wanted them to learn to play as a team, wait for open shots, set good screens, make smart passes and box out against teams that refused to lose, much like the ones American Canyon faces in the SCAC. With only three returners, the Wolves seemed to have benefited from the challenges. Five of their nonleague losses were by an average margin of only eight points.

In a 43-36 loss to a much taller and more experienced Vintage squad on Jan. 2, American Canyon struggled on the boards but stayed aggressive until the end, pulling to within five points three times in the fourth quarter. The Wolves looked like they’d taken a lot of punches since scrimmaging Vintage at the Justin-Siena Jamboree a month and a half earlier.

Comparing a few scores shows how far American Canyon has come:

  • Two weeks before the Vintage game, American Canyon had lost by 37 points at Wood. But Wood recently lost to Vintage by the same margin, 45-38, that the Wolves had.
  • At the Dixon Ram Jam Tournament on Dec. 30, the Wolves fell by 16 points to SCAC rival Vallejo. In a rematch three weeks later, American Canyon lost just 49-45 to the Redhawks.

Before Tuesday’s 88-31 loss at Vanden, the Wolves (2-17, 0-4 SCAC) had lost three SCAC games by a total of 11 points. They should have a much better shot at a conference win when they host Fairfield (1-15, 1-3 SCAC) at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“One of the things that we’re learning is that success, lasting success, doesn’t come easy,” Davis said after the Vintage game, talking like a coach with a plan. “If you’re trying to be part of a winning tradition and create a legacy, it’s going to come through hard work. We could in preseason play teams that are not as competitive as the ones we see in Division I tournaments in Sacramento, but the big picture for us is we know we’re a small team and we need to get used to the physicality. Height has always been challenge for us, but if we can play through that and be competitive, by the time league starts we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends.

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American Canyon Girls Basketball

American Canyon junior Robyn-Elizabeth Yan jukes past Vintage's Alyssa Andrews (2) during a Jan. 2 road game.

“Nobody likes a losing preseason, the players or the coaches, because we’re all competitive. But it’s about the big picture, the success of the program, so we’ll take it. With the experience we’ve gotten, hopefully for us it will start to click (in SCAC play) and take us into the postseason. If it doesn’t happen this season, we have next season to build upon and continually get better.”

The Wolves’ previous two head coaches guided similar teams to the playoffs, squads with young leading scorers who seemed to inspire their peers to pick up their games by their second season together.

“They’re learning to be young ladies of character, persistence, hard work and being able to face adversity,” Davis said, “asking ‘if that didn’t work, what are we going to try to do next?’ I tell them all the time ‘The alphabet is 26 letters, A through Z. A don’t work, you go to B. B don’t work, you go to C. You just keep plugging away until you figure it out.’ Same thing in the classroom: If this study habit doesn’t work, then you figure out another study habit. Even though you may not have success, you know what doesn’t work and you’ll never repeat that again.

“It’s not easy not having those wins. But I think our maturity, our composure in how we handle losses, has gotten better. It’s nice to hear them saying at the end of the game ‘I’ve got to make free throws, so I’ve got to work on that, or I’ve got to work on my ball handling.’ When it’s something they want to do, it makes it easier for you as a coach.”

While two juniors are carrying most of the scoring load, Robyn-Elizabeth Yan (12.1 points per game) and Adriauna Samodio (10.6), Davis likes that others are trying to get into the mix. American Canyon was led in one of its two wins by senior Lauren Summers with a season-high 14 points. Coming close to double figures have been senior returners Mariah Carlyle and Trinity Tapia and freshman Micah Lawrence.

Rounding out the team are senior Erika Culannay – who didn’t play last year – and juniors Ima Tapaoan, Jade Miller, A.J. Cayetano and Chezlaine Barrero.

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American Canyon Girls Basketball

American Canyon freshman Micah Lawrence shoots in front of Vintage's Alyssa Andrews during Tuesday night's road game.

“They’re a good group of ladies,” Davis said. “They work really hard and they’re really coachable, but (most of them) are learning their way, learning the pace because these are much bigger bodies than they saw at the JV level. In the beginning of the season, they were OK with giving the ball to the seniors, thinking ‘it’s your team and you know this offense.’ Even though there have been mistakes and not as much scoring from them, they’re getting better at boxing out, passing up the floor and making the extra pass.

“I tell them, sometimes the things you do aren’t going to show in the scorebook, but they will on the scoreboard. The little things you do help us as a team and impact us as a program. Don’t worry about the points. If you do what’s right for the team, the other ladies will make sure you get your shot by making the extra pass to you.’”

Some might notice the Wolves have only one player with a single-digit number – the 4-foot-9 Tapaoan. Some football coaches won’t allow small numbers because they might give a player more attention, and feel higher numbers reflect the blue-collar attitude of, say, an offensive lineman.

“That’s just a coincidence,” Davis said, but added she does think the blue-collar numbers of her players is fitting. “Based on our size, that’s how we’re going to have to be. We’re going to have to be that team that digs in and grinds through. Our hat has to be hung on our defense. We’re going to have to be able to dictate what you do on offense.”

Vanden has won 50 straight in the SCAC since a regular season-ending loss to Benicia in 2012, routing American Canyon by 54 and 77 points last season. But Davis doesn’t want her team give up even against the mighty Vikings before moving to a new section and league next year.

“We know who Vanden is, but at the same time, we need to come to compete and do what we do well,” the coach said. “The message we want to send is that when you see us on your schedule, know that we’re coming to compete.”

If the Wolves can beat the four teams not named Vanden in the second half of conference play, they’ll finish 5-5 in the SCAC and make the playoffs.

“It’s been a tale of two halves for us so far,” she said after the Vintage loss. “We put together a good first half and struggle in the second, or (vice versa). We’ve got to put together two solid halves, figure out our energy level at the beginning of the game, get a little bounce in us and grind through that second quarter.

“It’s about character building for the younger ladies who have just moved up to varsity.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.