It’s been eight years since the St. Helena girls basketball program got off to a better start than the one they’re off to this season.
Even with their 49-24 loss to Rio Vista last weekend, the Saints sit at 4-6 at the end of their preseason schedule. League play begins at the start of January and the Saints are confident and determined to snap their 55-game losing streak in North Central League I play.
“I’m really hopeful. That would be really, really exciting, at least for me, because playing on varsity I haven’t seen us win a game,” said senior Citlali Garcia. “I don’t know what it feels like to go to playoffs in basketball, we might not get there this year but it’s worth trying.”
It’s been a somewhat of a resurgent season for the Lady Saints. Coming off their 2-23 season last year, they set a modest goal to double their win total this season. Ten games in and they’ve already accomplished that.
But now the difficult part comes. The Saints have been a bottom dweller in the NCL I for the past four seasons and the league is sure to be tough again this year with teams like Kelseyville (7-3) and Cloverdale (6-3).
But there’s a different energy around this team. The Saints have a new veteran head coach in Darol Smith and boast a roster with six seniors, which is more than the total number of players they had for some games last season.
“We started out with like seven players but by the end of the season we didn’t have any subs so it was difficult when people fouled out in games,” Garcia said about last season. “We hung on by a strand.
“Last year it was really frustrating not having the numbers. I don’t want to say that I carry the team because I have a bunch of other seniors who are doing that right beside me, but it was definitely a challenge playing three vs. five or four vs. five. It was really, really frustrating. I remember after a couple games last year, I broke down in tears after the game because you just can’t compete like that.”
This year, however, that’s not an issue. The Saints have 11 players on their roster and most of them play every game. Garcia actually finds herself being subbed out of games this year because she no longer has to play all 32 minutes.
“Now I get benched, which is awesome,” Garcia said with laugh. “I get a break and it gives other players a chance to play. I love to play, but giving other players the opportunity to play and take my spot is really good for them too.”
That experience the younger players are getting, especially in the winning environment this season has carried, will help for years to come, Garcia thinks, and will hopefully be a step in the right direction for turning the girls basketball program around.
“I think we all give our input and leadership,” Garcia said. “We also moved up a few sophomores and so I think that leadership is really nice for them to know so they can fill in our spots when we’re gone next year.”
The impact of graduation is already a topic that many players have in the back of their minds. The experience the seniors bring has undoubtedly aided the turnaround. The underclassmen recognize this and can see the writing on the wall. They might be having a good year at the moment, but what’s going to happen next year when the seniors are gone?
“Even though our league season hasn’t started yet, it’s already hit us that they will be leaving and that’s half of our team,” said sophomore Daphne Steele. “I think everyone is thinking about that but it’s also thinking that we’re finally getting the basketball program back on its feet and then we’ll just be starting all over again next season because a lot of the JV girls have never played before, which, that’s what high school is all about, but it will definitely be a bit of a setback.”
For that reason, the Saints are in full win-now mode. They’re trying to take advantage of this great start to not only try and get the girls basketball program back on its feet but to also send the seniors out on a positive note.
“We want to help them have their best season because they haven’t had good seasons in the four years they’ve been here,” Steele said. “I just think that overall we’re more as a team rather than individuals. I think last year, it was all about you as a player and not as a whole and that we need each other in order to be successful.”
The Saints will give league their best shot this year and may surprise some teams. They’ve already surprised themselves and are now more confident in what they can do.
“I think our mindset is, ‘Oh, this is what we actually can do,’ because in preseason, these teams we’re playing are way out of our league but when it comes to league season, they’re more at our level,” Steele said. “I know there are some teams that are way better than us but there’s more motivation for us to do the best we can rather than half-assing it.”
The Saints will open league play Jan. 4 against Middletown.