Benefield: Cloverdale girls basketball team riding high entering playoffs

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IF YOU GO

Who: St. Helena at Cloverdale

What: North Central League I girls basketball

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Cloverdale High

In talking about the play of the Cloverdale Eagles girls basketball team, coach Rick Berry goes back to the same refrain: “We have been playing better and better.”

He said it three times in our conversation. It’s a simple enough idea, but it really ought to scare the living daylights out of whomever has to play Cloverdale in the postseason because frankly, their results are pretty phenomenal already, without even getting to the better piece.

The Eagles are 21-4 overall and 13-0 heading into their final North Central League I contest with St. Helena on Thursday night and are currently ranked No. 2 among North Coast Section Division 5 schools.

Still, Berry laments a couple of their losses and thinks this is a team still on the rise.

The 26-25 loss to Santa Rosa on Dec. 27? The Eagles didn’t play well and should have won that one, Berry said. The 47-44 loss to Head-Royce in the second game of the season? That’s one he thinks — with some adjustments — should have gone the Eagles’ way, too.

That leaves a 60-44 loss to Ukiah on Dec. 5 and a 68-41 loss to a tough Montgomery squad on Dec. 11 for defeats Berry can live with. It’s important to note that Ukiah is ranked ninth among NCS Division 2 schools and Montgomery is ranked third.

So the Eagles have permission to think big.

They have run away with the NCL I. They are undefeated heading into the league finale against an 0-12 St. Helena squad. And games typically are not close — they are beating teams by an average of 23 points per game. Even the close games — two of them — seem to show the strength of the Eagles.

On Jan. 4, the Kelseyville Knights pushed the Eagles to overtime before Cloverdale eventually won 64-56. But the next time the two teams played, on Jan. 25, it was a different story: Cloverdale 68, Kelseyville 52. In the only other league contest that could be considered close, Fort Bragg pushed the Eagles to a 50-41 finish in their first meeting Jan. 8. They met for a second time Jan. 28 and it was markedly different: Eagles 53, Timberwolves 38.

“I think a lot of it is, you play them and you see their strengths and we try to take away their strengths,” Berry said. “For us, one time around, we see a team, we can make adjustments.”

They are able to pull it off in a tighter turnaround time as well, Berry said. Like at halftime.

“The third quarter has been a really good quarter for us because at halftime we make adjustments,” he said.

Berry, for his part, doesn’t let the team coast, despite their record. He said he makes practices intense, loaded with intrasquad competition. “We work hard,” he said.

“You have to prove yourself every night,” he said. “You have to go out with that attitude. You have to.”

And being the only undefeated team in league, the Eagles have long expected to be a bit of a target.

“Teams in our league play us tough,” Berry said. “They battle. They try hard. It’s not like we just show up and win.”

IF YOU GO

Who: St. Helena at Cloverdale

What: North Central League I girls basketball

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Cloverdale High

The last time the girls squad at Cloverdale went undefeated in league was in 2013-14. That year they were seeded 12th in the NCS Division 4 bracket and lost in the first round to No. 5 seed Cardinal Newman.

But the Eagles have had plenty of NCS playoff success in recent years.

A second seed in Division 5 in 2015-16, they lost in the semifinals. In 2016-17, they were seeded 10th and lost in the quarterfinals to eventual section champs St. Bernard’s.

Last year they were seeded fifth and lost in the quarterfinals to league rival Clear Lake.

This season the Eagles have the goods to make a run in the Division 5 tournament.

“We know we can compete,” Berry said. “We think we can do well.”

Junior Tehya Bird, who passed the 1,000 career points mark earlier this season, leads the Eagles with 25 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four steals per game. That’s not a bad stat line.

Kayli Persons, a senior, is putting up 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals per game, while Marina Lopez, a senior, is adding five points, two rebounds, two assists and three steals. Junior Maci Hernandez is contributing four points and six rebounds per game.

Catherine Driver, one of four sophomores on the 10-player roster, is running the show from the point, putting up nine points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals per contest.

“She’s probably one of our true basketball players,” Berry said. “This is what she likes to play; this is the only sport she plays. She’s a student of the game; she watches a lot of basketball.”

Driver played varsity last year as a freshman but twisted her knee and missed the final games of the season, Berry said. Giving her the reins this season was never in doubt.

“Catherine already had varsity experience,” Berry said. “She sees the court a lot better than most girls.”

Berry said he’s not big on saddling the team with high playoff expectations but said the team has already ticked two boxes off their “to-do” list this season: Win 20 games and win league.

But Berry has been around long enough to know the playoffs are a different kettle of fish.

“Other teams are there for a reason,” he said.

But the Eagles will be there for a reason, too. And just one is the feeling that they are getting better and better all the time.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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