School is out for Thanksgiving break this week but that doesn’t mean the Saints stopped working.
On Monday, members of the JV and varsity St. Helena girls basketball team arrived at an empty school to begin their final full week of practice.
First-year varsity head coach Darol Smith greeted them at the Fieldhouse practice gym, hoping the turnout for Monday’s practice was better than the open gym he organized on Saturday.
Out of the 20 girls that make up the varsity and JV teams – 12 on varsity, eight on JV, for now – only one showed up to the impromptu, optional shoot around, a number that frustrated Smith, 84, as he begins his tenure as the new head of the Saints varsity program.
“I’m excited, except for that,” Smith said before practice on Monday. “That’s the only thing negative, the commitment. Saturday, that was the icing on the cake.”
The concern on his face on Monday turned to relief as the majority of his varsity team showed up ready for practice, a small but important win for Smith and the Saints as they begin a process that they hope changes the trajectory of St. Helena girls basketball.
Record-wise, the Saints have not been good in recent history and that’s no secret. In the last four seasons, St. Helena girls basketball has gone 9-85. Its last winning season coming back in 2013-14 when the Saints went 11-10.
Last season, the Saints went 2-23 and 0-14 in league.
But the players this year seem optimistic. The Saints have twice as many players this year as they did last year and have six seniors on the roster. Plus, five of the six juniors from last year’s team are back, giving them experience and depth that they haven’t had in years.
“Everyone on the team has something to bring,” said senior Andrea Hernandez. “I feel like this year will be something different. I hope we have more wins than we did last year but we’ll see.”
The Saints overarching goal for the season is to double their win total from two to four. That might seem like a marginal improvement, but the Saints look at it as a step in the right direction.
The Saints want to buck the losing culture that has ingrained itself in the program over the last several years. No one likes to lose, but once things started going downhill, they’ve been tough to stop.
“I feel like we know we’re not a winning team but last year it got worse just because our numbers went down and our motivation did, too,” Hernandez said. “It got pretty bad.”
One of senior Lauren Ridgway’s goals this year is to help hold the team together, which was one of the Saints’ downfalls last year.
“I think us just being a team and not letting each other down because that was a big thing last year with people quitting,” said Ridgway, a senior. “I don’t know, over time we just got used to losing, I mean we tried to win, but our motivation went down.”
The Saints are still working on getting players fully committed, but aside from turnout, Smith has liked what he’s seen from his team since practices began on Oct. 29.
“We’re fast. We’re very fast,” he said. “We have no post players but we’re very fast. We’re going to run and try to press. We have probably eight or nine kids of somewhat equal talent. … We don’t shoot very well, but we play hard.”
St. Helena High named Smith as the head varsity coach in early summer when Kate Shipp-Roberts, who served as the JV coach in 2016-17 and the varsity coach last year, stepped down for personal reasons.
This will be Smith’s third season involved with the St. Helena program. He followed Shipp-Roberts from American Canyon to St. Helena in 2016, serving as a volunteer assistant on the JV team she led. When Shipp-Roberts filled the varsity head coaching role, Smith jumped in to lead the JV team. Now, he’s back at the helm of a varsity program.
Smith has a decades-long coaching background in high school basketball. He led girls basketball teams at Terra Linda, Casa Grande, Elsie Allen and San Rafael. On the boys’ side, he spent several years as the head coach at Terra Linda, where in 1988 he led the Trojans to the state finals. He also coached the boys’ team at Lick-Wilmerding in San Francisco.
Before getting into coaching, Smith earned a scholarship to play basketball at the University of San Francisco, where he played with NBA legend Bill Russell in the early 1950s. He was also a standout prep player in San Francisco during high school.
Smith said he wants to instill a fun and enjoyable atmosphere to the program this year, but recognizes the clear obstacles in his path. His main focus as the season-opener draws nearer is reinforcing how important commitment is to the success of the team.
He said that he’s going to begin instituting strict attendance policies at practice, which some of the players agree with.
“I think it’s fair,” Ridgway said. “If you ditch you probably shouldn’t get to play.”
So far Ridgway and Hernandez said they like playing for Smith because he works extensively on how to properly execute plays.
“He spends a lot more time on running plays, which is good because that’s what we need to practice,” Ridgway said. “It gets confusing at times but overall we’re giving more time to practicing plays.”
The Saints open their season next Wednesday when they travel to Petaluma to play St. Vincent. They then play at Roseland Collegiate Prep on Dec. 1 and at Winters Dec. 4 before playing in front of a home crowd at the St. Helena Girls Invitational Tournament running Dec. 6-8.
They open league play at home against Lower Lake on Jan. 2.