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With a strong senior class, the Napa High girls basketball team is off to its best start in four years.

Leading the 4-1 Grizzlies are three leaders who are “very aggressive, competitive and play off each other very well,” head coach Darci Ward said.

Carly Johnson, an All-County Player of the Year finalist as a sophomore last season despite missing most of her freshman season on varsity due to a broken clavicle, is one of Napa’s leading scorers and a “great defender who consistently works on improvement,” Ward said. “I think this is will be her best year by far. She is quick, great instincts when going for the ball, and is very athletic. She has a very strong competitive spirit and always wants to win.

Senior point guard Jane McLoughlin is a “great leader on the court, a strong defensive player, and very quick,” Ward said. “She leads our team on defense and offense. We struggle when she is not on the court.”

Siena Young, who started as a sophomore but was living in Germany most of her junior season, seems to have found her groove again. “She is a very strong player, attacks the bucket really well and creates things on the court,” Ward said. “She can out rebound many players due to her aggressiveness and instinct for the ball. Siena would love to block as many shots as possible, but we are working on having control defensively so she stays out of foul trouble.”

The other seniors are Caitlyn Neal, Sofia Brandon and Jenna Baker.

Neal is one of the scrappiest players on the team. “She works very hard in the post and will fight for every rebound,” Ward said. “She does a great job of boxing out and taking their better players out of rebounding position.

Brandon is great shooter with great hands, Ward said, adding “she has worked really hard in every season and off season to improve. Sofia is one of the best communicators on the court and is a true leader. She is constantly helping out her teammates on the court and explaining to them when they are confused. Sofia has worked very hard at improving her defense and is showing great strides.

Baker skipped basketball as a sophomore before pitching the softball team to its first-ever section title and “it has taken her awhile to get her basketball stride back,” Ward said, “but I think this is going to be a very solid year for Jenna. She is a fantastic shooter with a great touch on the ball, and has great instincts. Her on-ball defense is aggressive and she often steps in to get steals on the court.”

Johnson is joined by several other juniors.

In the post is Faith Bartlett, a “great rebounder,” Ward said, who “does a solid job and denying the post pass and when she is in position. It is really hard to make a pass on her. Faith will work really hard on ball pressure and is not afraid to take on a quicker player for one-on-one containment on the court. Faith has a lot of potential for growth and she is going to be a huge bonus for us this year.”

Rosie Scaduto also plays in the post, and Ward called her a “very scrappy player who will fight for every rebound on the court and is not afraid to battle other players. Whenever Rosie goes in the game, she is a spark plug for us, hitting a good shot or going to the ground fighting for the ball.”

Madison Shipp is a guard and very solid defensive player. “She really helps us with her positive attitude, asks a lot of questions in order to improve and get better, and is not afraid to speak out. I love her energy on and off the court,” the coach said.

Charlotte Gerard “has tremendous speed and a nice outside shot,” Ward said. “When she is playing at her best, Charlotte can be hard to stop with her speed and athleticism. She has been working on her defense and is becoming much better at stopping her opponents.”

Anna Ghisletta returns to the varsity “with great energy and fire when she goes on the court,” Ward said.”She has great hands and often comes up with steals on the court. She is the spark plug because she likes to trap on the court and create a frenetic energy for the other team.”

Hannah Newman helps the Grizzlies attack zone defenses. “She really reads the defense well and makes great offensive choices,” Ward said. “She understands which move to make to the bucket. Her height helps disrupt our opposing team because it can be hard to get a shot off of her when both arms are up.”

Last but definitely not least is sophomore point guard Maizy Armstrong-Brown, who has already been a scoring leader. “She’s a very athletic player with great instincts,” Ward said. “She has an innate understanding of the game and can see things that other players might miss. She finishes very well at the bucket and can find players on the court easily.”

Last year’s team was one of only three in Ward’s 15 seasons at the helm to not make the playoffs. But Napa has never missed the playoffs twice a row, and doesn’t plan to this year.

“Yes, our players are definitely hungry to make it to the postseason,” Ward said, “although our biggest focus and concern right now is just getting prepared and improving during this preseason. We have a big team and we are working out the kinks right now in terms of team flow, chemistry, playing time, and defensive and offensive sets.”

Ward and assistant coach Michele Lewis, her sister, have 13 players – their most ever.

“We have girls who are not starting who could probably start on other teams. It is a wonderful problem to have and I look forward to how we can use to our advantage this season,” Ward said. “I love coaching this team. They have great energy, are not afraid of hard work, treat each other well, and will play hard on the court until that last buzzer sounds.”

Wrestling

Nacho Franco, now in his 21st season at the Napa High helm, said senior Chase LaRue captains the team. A 182-pounder last season, LaRue is hungry after missing the postseason with a knee injury.

Also leading the team will be senior Brady Bledsoe, junior Brandon Bledsoe and sophomore Benito Saldivar, who each placed third in the Monticello Empire League last February, along with seniors Marcus Lex and Benjamin Salas, who were both fourth, and senior Robert Naverrete, who was fifth.

“They had a great summer of training and went to a full camp as a team. They have been putting in the work needed to succeed,” Franco said. “We are excited for the season.”

At last weekend’s Vista del Lago Invitational in Folsom, Saldivar (126 pounds) went 1-2 with a 52-second pin, Brandon Bledsoe (132) 1-2 with a 4:28 pin, Robert Gomez (145) 1-2 with a technical fall, Manuel Infante (160) 1-2 with a decision, Brady Bledsoe (182) 2-3 with wins by major decision and forfeit, Salas (195) 0-2 with 4-3 and 10-7 losses, and Lex (285) 0-2 with 3-2 and 6-3 losses. Itziar Garcia (138) and Garrett Axton (170) also competed.

Girls Soccer

The Grizzlies (0-2-1) visit Dublin at 7 p.m. Friday in search of their first win, after falling 3-2 at American-Fremont and 3-0 at Vanden last week and battling host Wood to a 0-0 tie on Wednesday night.

They will host Cardinal Newman on Dec. 11 before playing five straight road games, including their VVAL opener at Justin-Siena on Dec. 19.

Senior midfielder-forward Maria Comstock put Napa on the board in the opener, and junior midfielder Maija Turjanis came off the bench add a late goal.

Manning the goal is recent UC San Diego signee Grace Vlandis. The senior captain played varsity as a freshman, skipped her sophomore high school season to focus on her club team, before returning to the high school squad last year. But second-year head coach Milton Gallegos said Vlandis is currently out due to concussion protocol.

Junior goalkeeper Brenda Bernardino posted Wednesday’s shutout but was out of town last week, forcing Gallegos to ask senior striker Avry Brandt man the goal in both games.

“Avry did a little goalkeeping for us on JV when she was a freshman. She definitely has a high IQ and good attacking mind and understands the game real well,” Gallegos said. “Considering she had only two days to prep for it, she actually did an outstanding job. The goals you could not blame on keeper error.”

Rounding out the team are six seniors – midfielder-captain Loulou Herve, forward Tatiana Rabanales, defenders Alicia Ramirez-Ruiz, Noelle Core and Jenifer Valdez, and midfielder Bess Shug.

Along with Turjanis, the juniors are defenders-midfielders Sophia Conversano and Henley Frommelt, defenders Jasmine Guinn, Jaqueline Perez-Reyes and Fernanda Aguilar, and midfielders Maribel Rafael, Paola Ramirez, Claudia Covarrubias, Mila Valentine and Natasha Thomson-Rangel.

Gallegos pulled up sophomore forward-midfielder Annie Sanchez from the JV for Wednesday’s game, possibly for the rest of the season.

Having previously coached at longtime NCS member St. Helena, Gallegos said the Grizzlies need to transition from the Sac-Joaquin Section’s more physical style of play to the more technique-oriented style of the NCS.

“We have to have more finesse and just a cleaner touch – a lot more soccer, I guess you could say – more misdirection, runs off the ball and give-and-gos,” he explained. “We need to not only master our own positions but understand what all the other 10 players are doing much more than we have previously.

“Even though we’ve been scored on six times, the defense is playing really well as a unit,” he said of the group led by center backs Core and Conversano. “You can have the best defense, but if they’re never getting off the field, they going to get exhausted and give up a big play. We haven’t done any long, clock-eating attacks, so that’s something we need to improve on.”

His assistant and goalkeeping coach is his brother, Ozzie Gallegos, and the JV coach is Adrian Guetter.

Boys Soccer

When you play most of your preseason against programs that went deep into the postseason the year before, you get a good idea of your playoff chances. Especially if you win most of those games, as the Grizzlies have done under new head coach Rafael Ayala, who assisted former head coach Rogelio Ochoa the last five seasons.

Napa (2-1), after opening the season Nov. 27 with a 2-0 home loss to reigning CIF Central Coast Section Div. II champion Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep of San Francisco, bounced back with wins over two other private schools. On Nov. 29, Napa won 3-2 at Christian Brothers-Sacramento, which was the Sac-Joaquin Section Div. III runner-up in 2014. On Wednesday the Grizzlies pulled out a 1-0 win over last year’s North Coast Section Div. 4 runner-up, Saint Mary’s-Albany, on a second-half goal by junior midfielder Irving Flores.

The Grizzlies will host Bethel, a program two years removed from winning a Div. III SJS playoff game, at 6 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.

On Dec. 11, they will visit defending NCS Open Division champion St. Ignatius-San Francisco, before hosting Wood – coached by former Napa High player and head coach Jorge Ruiz-Chavez – on Dec. 19. Their final nonleague game will be at defending NCS Div. 1 champion De La Salle on Jan. 19, during a league bye.

Ayala, a 1998 Napa High graduate, was last a head coach with Justin-Siena’s boys in 2006 and 2007. He then became a counselor and assistant coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep for five years, helping Jeff Wilson guide the Fightin’ Irish to two section crowns, before becoming a counselor at Napa High.

The Grizzlies are captained by last winter’s Monticello Empire League Player of the Year, Julio Alonzo, and fellow senior forward Juan Leon. The other seniors are starting goalkeeper Miguel Pizano, midfielder Diego Aguilar, forward Marco Ramirez, and defenders Austin Larsen, Roberto Ramos, Enrique Lopez, Mauricio Gomez, Cruz Palafox, Raymond Muñoz and Benito Salinas.

Along with Flores, the juniors are goalkeeper Edbert Casillas, forwards Erik Vargas, Marco Pizano, Tony Gonzalez and Finnigan Stuhan, defenders Angel Rodriguez and Elias Garcia, midfielders Ulises Castillo, Brian Gonzalez-Vargas and Yair Gonzalez-Vargas, while sophomore midfielder Samuel Villanueva rounds out the squad.

The assistant coaches are Isidro Nunes, Braulio Nunes, Oscar Corona, Jason Martinez and Raul Gallegos, and the JV coach is Frank Martinez.

Ayala would like to see Vintage, Justin-Siena and American Canyon also do well in the VVAL this season, so the league strength helps teams get in the playoffs.

He’s glad that four of Napa’s five nonleague games against private schools have been, or will be, on the road.

“It’s healthy for our kids to walk into these historical, private institutions because they deserve to play in those stadiums,” he said. “We want the rest of the Bay Area to see how respectful and talented our kids are. If we win, it’s a victory for every school in our community. I just want the kids to improve every day and change their lives for the better.”

Prep Boys Basketball

In their third season under head coach Zack Cook, it took the Grizzlies only seven games to get their fifth win – five fewer than last year and nine fewer than the year before.

As it showed in going 3-0 at its Wine Valley Tournament last weekend, Napa plays like a team from a basketball school. The Grizzlies are led not only by three seniors – Vince O’Kelley and captains Stephen Blume and Zach Swim – but also by freshman point guard Tyler Oda, who played for nationally ranked AAU program Flight Elite of Walnut Creek the last three years.

“Having Tyler is just great. He’s a true point guard,” Cook said. “He dribbles with his hands up, and he can go both ways. Vince was our point guard last year off and on, and he’s really improved with his decision making and slowing things down a bit.”

Rounding out the team are juniors Danny Ruiz, Will Marseilles, Logan Van Zandt, Tony Gonzalez, Jack Hunter and Joe La Liberte, and sophomores Brock Bowers and Brayden Greenlee.

Cook said keys to this team’s strong start include “our togetherness, and being a little bit tougher mentally and physically. We prepare for games better and warm up hard, and we’re being able to fight through turnovers and missed shots well. That’s half the battle.

“Our sophomores and freshman are competitive as heck, and just as hungry as our seniors. It bleeds out to the rest of the team and the guys feed off that.”

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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.