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Elsie Allen girls basketball on the rise after years of struggle

For perhaps the first time, hope surrounds the Elsie Allen girls basketball team.

In a school that has had very little athletic success in any sport during its quarter-century of existence, the team is in its third straight year of improvement.

So far this season, the team has won 12 games - believed to be a record for the most wins in any single season for the Lobos.

That also equals the total number of Lobos victories in the eight seasons combined since 2011-12. In that stretch, the team record was 12-171.

“I knew there was a challenge here,” said second-year coach Tony Sivillo, who had previously coached only elementary and middle-school kids. “There was a drought. They were thirsty. There was a drought, but they are drinking from the well.”

But Sivillo, who is also a pastor, had faith that change could happen.

Such a change would be momentous. The team has been a cellar-dweller in league standings since 2006-07. The Lobos haven’t won a league contest since 2010-11.

But a 12-0 start against mostly small-school opponents from around the region has given the team a spark never felt before.

“It’s definitely a change,” said four-year varsity player Karely Vazquez, the team’s 5-10 center. “It’s been a change of mentality. This is a good group of girls.”

Sivillo knew his first year would be a trial, and it was.

The Lobos won more than they had in a long time and finished 7-18 overall. But the team remained winless in the North Bay League-Redwood Division (0-10).

He trod “very lightly” that first season, Sivillo said, getting to know the girls and letting them get to know him and how he intends to run the program.

“He pushes us to our limits,” said Vazquez, an all-league honorable mention last year. “He pushes us to do what he knows we can do.”

“What’s made the difference,” Sivillo said, “is that I’ve given them a new vision, high standards for them on the basketball court. I’ve given them principles to live by on the court and off the court.”

They’ve responded well, he said. They are more respectful, ?more even-tempered when something doesn’t go their way. They’ve shown up to offseason events and the drama has just about disappeared.

After winning seven games last season, Sivillo and the team set a preseason goal this year to qualify for the playoffs.

“They are lofty goals,” he said, “but they are attainable.”

The Lobos are close. Though they dropped their first league game, 68-25, to El Molino on Wednesday, one more win would assure them of at least a .500 record, one of the criteria the postseason selection committee considers.

Even more, add two wins and the team will guarantee its first winning record ever.

The closest the Lobos came to the even-water mark was in 2007-08, when they finished 11-17 and 2-13 in league.

Breaking into the league win column may be difficult, but Sivillo believes his girls have a chance. They have a rough stretch ahead, though, facing defending league champion Rancho Cotate on Friday and Maria Carrillo next week. They host Piner on Jan. 17.

The rough loss to El Molino on Wednesday may have taken a little wind out of the Lobos’ sails, but wasn’t completely unexpected. The Lions are thought to be in the hunt for a top-tier finish in Redwood.

Lions coach Keith Nordby said he is impressed with Elsie’s progress.

“They’re bigger, faster, move the ball well,” he said. “They are really starting to build a nice program. He’s got numbers both on JV and varsity.”

The Elsie junior varsity team downed El Mo’s by 30 points Wednesday.

“So Elsie Allen is coming along,” Nordby said.

A big lift for the Lobos this year has been the return of senior all-league honorable ?mention point guard Bivianna Lopez. After a horrific ankle break last year in a game against Piner, she has fully recovered and is back on the court.

“She has inspired me by her commitment and the odds against her to get back on the court and play the game she is passionate about,” Sivillo said. “Bivianna brings great leadership and skill-set to our team. ... Her superb defense and offensive creativity has given our team a chance to win. She is a force when she is on the court.”

Along with Vazquez, Elyssa Smith, also 5-10, provides height and power down low, while 5-5 guards Isabel Lopez and Samantha Holguin offer speed, ball-handling and shooting.

With the on-court skills he’s drilling into the girls, Sivillo is also teaching hard work, commitment, determination, focus and integrity - in concrete, daily examples.

“He is a more committed and determined coach,” said Lopez, the senior guard. “He inspires us in the way we’re playing.”

Commitment, he said, has already been shown in the 15 girls on the roster and even more who played during the summer - the first time that many girls came out.

And the girls understand that those tenets carry over to school work, their behavior, their attitudes at home.

Sivillo said he’s giving them a purpose, which includes but is more than basketball: “Why am I here? Am I here only to play basketball? I’m giving them something to shoot for,” he said.

The coach acknowledges the rest of the season will be difficult and wins will be hard to come by, with NBL-Redwood opponents fielding very good teams.

Smith, one of the Lobos’ post players, said they feel a little pressure now that they’re winning: “It’s harder, but I’m glad. It feels nice to be recognized.”

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