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.
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.