Last year’s Calistoga girls varsity basketball team went further into the postseason than any other team in program or school history.

The 2018-19 Wildcats played their way to the North Coast Section Division 6 semifinals and then went on to play in the CIF NorCal Division 6 playoffs as well. While their season ended in the first round of NorCals, it was an historic achievement nonetheless.

The Wildcats are looking to take another step this season, and appear in good position to do so. They bring back every starter from last year’s team and, with deep playoff experience under their belts, have championship aspirations now.

Returners this season are seniors Angeli Aquino, Hayseel Barrera, Laila Elkeshen, Litzy Infante, Vanesa Quiepo and Lizbeth Escobedo, junior Tully Leonard and sophomore Andrea Villasenor. New varsity additions are seniors Dayana Cardona and Elin Carlsson and sophomore Daniela Chicas.

Ray Particelli has also returned as head coach, with boys varsity head coach Cesar “Shorty” Cruz sharing some coaching duties as an assistant.

The Wildcats got their 2019-20 campaign off to a strong start Monday night by blowing out visiting Anderson Valley, 46-14. Infante led the way with 15 points. Quiepo chipped in 12 and Chicas added 7 for the Wildcats, who next face St. Helena in the first round of the Gene Duffy Tournament at 8 p.m. Thursday.

“We did what we needed to do,” Particelli said about the team’s performance against the Panthers. “We played solid defense, we ran our stuff. We’ve put more of an emphasis on putting up more perimeter shots this year. Overall, both have a long way to go, but very happy with how we started.”

This will be Particelli’s third season leading the girls. One of the biggest changes he said he’s witnessed during his tenure is growth in his group’s confidence. When he arrived, the Wildcats were talented but didn’t completely believe in their abilities, he said. That’s not the case anymore.

“That’s an earned feeling that I’m glad they feel it,” he said on Monday. “I mean, three years ago we talked about wanting to go into a gym and feel like our program is better than theirs, and I think to a certain extent the girls believe that now.”

He and Cruz hope that belief translates into another successful season capped off with a repeat run in the postseason. Most of this year’s team also played on Calistoga’s historically successful volleyball teams the past several years. While this year’s volleyball team made the semifinals of the NCS playoffs and returned to the NorCal playoffs for the second straight season, head coach T’Anne Butcher said that her team had to work through a bit of a championship hangover at the start of the season.

Particelli doesn’t think his team will face a similar issue, even after coming off the most successful season in program history. He said the girls are a tight-knit group and don’t want to let each other down. Most importantly, he said, they have collectively bought into chasing history in what will be most of the team’s final season playing together.

“I don’t think motivation is going to be an issue,” he said.

The road to winning the first girls basketball section title in school history will be difficult, though. The biggest challenge, Particelli believes, will be Division 6 powerhouse Laytonville, the team that beat Calistoga 58-28 in the NCS semifinals a season ago. The Warriors return their three top scorers from a team that last year finished as runners up in the section to California School for the Deaf.

While Calistoga is a hungry and much-improved team, the same can be said for Laytonville.

“We’ll be solid,” Particelli said. “We’ll beat a decent amount of teams. But if we’re going to compete with Laytonville in 2 1/2 months, we have to get a hell of a lot better.”

Based on their preseason slate alone, the Wildcats should improve greatly from now until the regular season ends in mid-February. Highlighting their December schedule is a date at the West Coast Jamboree Dec. 27-29. It’s one of the top tournaments in the state, and Calistoga was one of more than 100 teams invited to participate.

“We were honored to just get asked,” Particelli said.

The Division 6 Wildcats are slated to play against several much larger schools, Particelli added, games that could end in some lopsided results.

“Going in on paper, we should get smoked three times. But for you, little Calistoga, to get invited to it is a huge deal, and you know what? We got nowhere to go but up,” Particelli said he told his team. “God forbid we win one of those three games.”

Regardless of how that tournament goes, and the rest of the season for that matter, Particelli said he simply wants to see the Wildcats steadily improve and play the kind of basketball he knows they’re capable of.

“I mean, 25 more games, we’re going to get better; it’s just a matter of how much better we get,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t care what our record is. I just want these girls to play good basketball every night. If we play good basketball every night, we’re going to win the lion’s share of our games. Now, how far will that take us? I don’t know. We may need to get real lucky in the playoffs … but those nights happen. That’s why you play the games.”

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Contact Gus via phone at 707-304-9372 or email at gmorris@napanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustGusMorris.


Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.