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El Niño is upon us. And just in the nick of time, so is some wholesome indoor activity: small-school basketball.

From Laytonville to Tomales, the cozier campuses of the Redwood Empire are dribbling into league play. The teams of the NCL I, II and III either started going head to head on Tuesday, or will do so Wednesday. Heck, the Small School Bridge League started playing league games in December.

It’s time to handicap, preview and get up to speed, but with so many small schools shooting so much hoops, where to begin? Well, probably Cloverdale, which has as fine a basketball tradition as any program in the Empire.

Heading into Tuesday night’s NCL I-opening games against Clear Lake, the Cloverdale girls were ranked No. 2 in the North Coast Section’s Division 5; the boys were ranked No. 4. Both teams are expected make a serious run at a league title, and possibly a deep playoff excursion.

The Eagles boys team lost one McMillan, but still has another. John, last year’s league co-MVP, has graduated. His younger brother, 6-foot-6 forward Jayson, will play an important role for Cloverdale this year. He’ll be joined by another 6-6 guy, Marcus Poe, the other NCL I co-MVP from a year ago.

The Cloverdale boys went 5-2 in the preseason.

The Eagles girls were even hotter, building a 10-2 preseason record. With four starters back from a solid 14-8 squad, they should be a factor in the NCL I, if not the favorite.

“Middletown is the obvious favorite, in my opinion,” Cloverdale girls coach Rick Berry said. “They’re so big and talented. But Clear Lake, Fort Bragg, Lower Lake and Kelseyville can beat anyone on any given night.”

And so can the Eagles.

“I haven’t seen this parity in our league in a long time,” Berry said.

Here some other small-town basketball stories to follow as the season develops.

CHASING PERFECTION

Add up all the high school basketball teams in the Redwood Empire right now, from the biggest campuses to the tiniest outposts, boys and girls, and you get 81 teams. That’s 81 squads dribbling, running, shooting and trying like heck to win every time out. And just one of them remains undefeated as we dive into to league play.

That would be the Sonoma Academy girls, who are 9-0 as they prepare for Technology High in Wednesday’s NCL II opener.

Not to unduly pressure the Coyotes, but it isn’t fanciful to think they have a chance at running the table in league, too. After all, they were 13-1 in the NCL II last year, falling only in a late-season game at Upper Lake, and that was by just five points.

True, Sonoma Academy lost last year’s Small School Player of the Year, Savannah Stoughton, to graduation. But this year’s team returns its other four starters and, top to bottom, it could be better than last year’s squad.

The Coyotes’ key players include senior center Clara Spars, senior shooter Stacey Olson, sophomore scorer Lauren Reed and senior Chloe Colbert, an All-Empire second-team pick last year who is a shutdown defender. Coach Kevin Christensen has a nice blend of youth and experience.

“Our seniors have been really good for us, but I have a group of seven sophomores on the team. Five of them played varsity last year, and that has helped us improve,” Christensen said. “Instead of going to my bench for freshmen to fill those 7-8-9 spots, now I’m going for sophomores. It was tough. I hadn’t coached freshmen for a while, and suddenly I had five in the gym at once who knew nothing of what I wanted. Now they do.”

THE HEIGHT OF CONFIDENCE

In small-school basketball, where the talent pool tends to be narrow, one tall kid in the paint can make a big difference. Two can immediately make a team a contender.

That’s good news for squads like the Middletown girls (NCL I) and Mendocino girls (NCL III), who will have a height advantage against just about any opponent they face.

Another team blessed with bigs is the St. Vincent boys. The Mustangs went 16-11 last year and were 7-3 in the preseason this year. The roster includes seniors Will Tarrant and Liam Galten, both of whom are about 6-foot-4, and junior Nick Murphy, who is around 6-3½ and solid enough to be a football standout at St. Vincent.

“That’s where the bulk of our strength is right now,” Mustangs coach Lance Phillips said. “We’re hoping our guards can start to come into their own. If they do, we could be very, very good. Hopefully pretty soon kids can grab their confidence and give us some balanced scoring. We’ll definitely dominate the rebounding in a lot of cases.”

STAR ATTRACTIONS

There are plenty of bright lights casting shadows in local small-school basketball, but it may be most obvious on the girls side, where an improbable 11 of 16 players from last year’s All-Empire team return to action in 2015-16.

That includes four girls from last year’s All-Emp first team: Cloverdale’s Angel Bernardi, Kelseyville’s Riley Goff, Upper Lake’s Natalie Karlsson and Middletown’s Ashlyn Welton.

Bernardi is a tough, versatile player who can guard pretty much anyone on the court. Goff is a big-time scorer who rarely comes to the bench for the Knights. Karlsson brings a gaudy 21.2-point scoring average out of preseason play. Welton is a strong post player who can score and rebound relentlessly.

No telling yet who will emerge as the Small School Player of the Year this time around. But she will have earned it.

NEW FACES

There is plenty of change afoot at St. Vincent, where vice principal Art Walker has taken over the girls basketball team following a five-year stint by Jim Fagundes.

On the boys side, the Mustangs have welcomed a couple of transfers who could wind up making a difference down the stretch.

Junior Justin Fahy transferred from Cardinal Newman; coach Lance Phillips said he’s “gonna be a player.” Senior Jake Pullan is a 6-5 center who came from San Marin. Both kids have been practicing at St. Vincent all season, but due to transfer rules they started playing just this week.

Other new coaches in the area include Shannon Tubbs, who is leading the Lower Lake boys, and Djamil Breton, now in charge of the Fort Bragg girls.

DON’T MISS THIS ONE

The most recent North Coast Section rankings on MaxPreps.com have Rio Lindo Adventist at No. 1 and Archbishop Hanna at No. 2 in Division 6. If the two small-school heavyweights and Small School Bridge League rivals can hold on to those spots, their showdown on Jan. 20 will be worth watching. And depending on what happens that night, the Feb. 3 rematch could be even livelier.

Rio Lindo has extra incentive to take down the Hawks. The Spartans lost just six games a year ago; three of them were against Hanna.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.