Benefield: Rivals become teammates at Santa Rosa Junior College

It wasn't long ago that Kerianne Noonan was in Kylie Oden's face ­­— the defensive specialist giving the sharpshooter a hard time.

But that was when Noonan wore the black and gold of Windsor High School and Oden was wearing the orange and black of Santa Rosa High.

'It's fun to talk about,' Noonan said. 'I give Kylie a hard time, 'Oh, I had you locked up in that game, remember?' '

Once foes, now teammates, Noonan and Oden are two of 13 Bear Cubs who competed for area high schools as rivals but now call each other teammate.

Forward Vai Thompson prepped at Maria Carrillo and regularly battled Niambi Saint Louis who played at Montgomery. And Brooke Santander, the sophomore who played at Casa Grande? Yeah, she remembers the likes of Oden and Noonan, and Madison Barsuglia of Carrillo.

'In high school we battled each other hard,' Oden said.

Today those battles are for each other instead of against each other.

The 6-3 Bear Cubs' 14-player roster features four former Maria Carrillo players and one each from St. Helena, Geyserville, Middletown, Analy, Windsor, Santa Rosa, El Molino, Casa Grande and Montgomery. Just one player, sophomore co-captain Jenna Dunbar, is not from the Redwood Empire. She went to high school in Paso Robles.

She also suffered a broken foot four weeks ago, so technically, every Bear Cub on the floor is a local.

'We have always had pretty good success with local kids and they tend to play a little bit different than everybody else,' longtime Bear Cubs coach Lacey Campbell said. 'They are a lot more unselfish.'

And perhaps, with the unique situation that playing and coaching at a two-year school represents, that is a key ingredient to the Bear Cubs' success.

Every year Campbell, like other junior college coaches, sees her team endure about 50 percent turnover. So every year she has to get former foes to think and play like teammates.

Some years, it works better than others. This is a smooth year, Bear Cubs say.

There was some talk at a recent practice that maybe they were even 'too nice.'

To that point, the stat sheet for the Bear Cubs is parity defined.

In the Bear Cubs' nine games, they have had four different leading scorers. Of the players seeing regular action, the average rebounds per game is remarkably even.

Campbell, in her 11th year at the helm, puts part of that down to building buy-in among players. She's not looking for players focusing on their own numbers or a quick ticket out of town to a four-year school. She's looking for teamwork and wins, not stats. 'I haven't dealt a lot with that,' she said. 'If someone is looking to get their points, it shows real fast.'

And Campbell won't set a lineup based on who was a star in high school.

'We try to approach that too with a mature mentality,' she said. 'We are not here to give everybody equal minutes. We are here to win games.'

To that end, Campbell is open with every team that comes her way. She talks about high school rivalries and competitive grudges and ego tug-o-wars — how they have no place in her locker room.

'It's a very interesting dynamic. We open it up right away, we talk about it,' Campbell said. 'We have had players that have absolutely hated each other.'

'We talk a lot about family,' she said. 'You are not going to love each other but you have to work for each other. You are doing it for the next person, not just yourselves.'

But that hasn't been an issue on this squad, Campbell and players are quick to point out.

Even if there is some jawing, it's about a competitive spark, not about nastiness.

And a will to win can make even bitter rivals solid teammates over time.

'We all have realized that we all have that same goal; we want to win,' Oden said.

Dunbar, the player Campbell has to chase out of the gym even with the guard's foot in a boot, said this year's group is so special that she opted out of a medical redshirt petition.

'I would rather play half the season with these girls' than save a year of eligibility, she said.

Co-captain Santander said she's looking forward to competing with teammates who were once rivals. And she likes this group's chances to make a run in the ultra-competitive Big 8 Conference.

'It's exciting,' she said. 'I've always loved a good battle.'

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes 'Overtime with Kerry Benefield.'

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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