Michelle Yamamoto, left, and Leeah Powell are two of the top players on the Bishop Amat girls basketball team this season. (Keith Durflinger / Staff Photographer)
By Aram Tolegian, Staff Writer
It’s hard to imagine an encore resembling anything close to last year’s local girls basketball season, but if it happens it probably will be the same teams producing the magic. Last year’s impressive run by Bonita High School is something that won’t soon be forgotten. On their way to a deep run in the postseason, the Bearcats avenged an earlier loss to area stalwart Bishop Amat. Another meeting in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs between those teams won’t happen because of division realignment, but they appear ready to take their fans on another fantastic journey. It won’t be all about the Bearcats and Lancers this season. Duarte returns every key contributor from last year’s record-setting team, and Diamond Ranch is loaded once again. It should all add up to another stellar winter on the hardwood. Here’s how they stack up at the dawn of a new season. (Click to continue top ten story)
Girls Hoops preseason top ten
1. Bishop Amat
2. Diamond Ranch
6. St. Lucy’s
7. Diamond Bar
1. Bishop Amat
The Lancers momentarily were knocked from their perch as the undisputed area power by Bonita in last year’s postseason. Amat quickly could get back on top if a team loaded with grit and a new face can combine to produce the expected big results under coach Richard Wiard.
Unlike most years, the true gauge of just how good Amat is will come in league play and not the Southern Section playoffs. Amat, however, is expected to fare better in one than the other.
Because of a new division realignment by CIF, Amat was placed in Division III-A where it will be
an overwhelming favorite to win another title. But things won’t be nearly as easy in the Del Rey League, where Amat will have to defend its title against strong teams in St. Bernard, Bishop Montgomery and Serra.
Wiard has the makings of a team that should be up to the challenge.
Point guard Michelle Yamamoto brings plenty of experience. Forward Leeah Powell is a tenacious defender and should see her points pick up on offense.
The Lancers got a big boost by getting Mater Dei transfer Paulina Santana. Only a sophomore, she has the type of offensive skills that could see her quickly develop into being the team’s leading scorer on most nights.
“I think she has the potential to be a Division 1 player,” Wiard said of Santana. “She’s 5-foot-8 and shoots the ball really well. Most kids that size don’t shoot the ball really well. She has a lot of upside.”
Sophomore Dagmar Ramirez and Janae Chamois saw plenty of action as freshmen and will have bigger roles this season, as will senior Kaysee Tayag.
2. Diamond Ranch
The electric tandem of Erika Williams and Chelsea Barnes enters its final act. The seniors rate among the top players in the area and figure to end their careers in a big way.
Barnes averaged 20 points per game last season and her athleticism once again should give opponents fits. Williamsaveraged 15 points last year. They have been on the Panthers’ varsity since their freshman years and won’t be fazed by the high-pressure situations that await Diamond Ranch.
With Tyvette White back at point guard and Sydney Cabellon and Cayla Freeman at forward, the Panthers have experience. Diamond Ranch coach Mike James thinks Tai Lark will flourish with more playing time.
The question for Diamond Ranch will be whether it can get past Bonita in the Hacienda League. The Panthers aren’t used to having challengers in league, but the Bearcats swept last year’s series.
“Our focus is to take it one game at a time and we should be all right if we just stay with that,” James said.
The Bearcats took the area by storm last year. They won 30 games and beat area power Bishop Amat on their way to the Division III-A championship game.
But with all-time leading scorer Madison Zylstra and 2011 Tribune Player of the Year Taylor Anderson having graduated, the question is whether a less experienced group can keep the run going.
Point guard Nikki Wheatley is back and arguably is the area’s best player. She will have to do more of the scoring herself, though, with Zylstra and Anderson no longer around to shoulder the load.
Also back is center Brianna Kennedy, who at 6-foot-3 is the top low-post player in the area. But after Wheatley and Kennedy, questions abound as to where the rest of the production will come from.
The Falcons won a school-record 25 games last season and even reached the state playoffs as the area’s biggest surprise.
There’s no reason why similar things can’t happen this winter.
Duarte returns all-everything junior Imari Brown, who nearly averaged a triple-double last season. Brown could be playing her way toward a next-level scholarship and once again will get help from several veteran returnees.
Shereese Cox, Mikayla Tickey and Yasmine Wilson joined Brown in averaging double figures in points last season. They’re all back and give Duarte one of the most veteran teams around.
Nothing figures to get in Duarte’s way this season in the Montview League, but the question is whether the Falcons can push the envelope even farther in the postseason.
The Wildcats dedicated last season to fallen coach Ed Bruyninckx, put together a 21-win season and won the Valle Vista League.
Coach Tracy Calton welcomes back a veteran squad that returns its top three scorers.
Jaimie Hou, Kaelyn Kawamoto and Kelli Calton all averaged around the same amount of points and figure to do so again. Considering Kawamoto was only a freshman and Calton a sophomore last year, chances are they will get even better this season with the added maturity.
The league looks like Wilson’s to lose and the Wildcats could go a round farther when the playoffs roll around later this season.
6. St. Lucy’s
Regents coach Mondo Lanier has done a good job turning his program into a consistent winner.
St. Lucy’s was no match for Chino Hills last year in the Sierra League, but did win 15 games and gets the slight nod heading into a wide-open race this season.
Nicole Zugasti’s graduation hurts the Regents since she was a force who could get points inside, but guard Savannah Selby is back.
Lanier had five freshmen on the varsity team last year in hopes of building something for the future. With Chino Hills having graduated its top four scorers from last season, St. Lucy’s should have a good chance to reign supreme in league.
7. Diamond Bar
The Brahmas could play their way into being the Hacienda League’s wild-card team this season.
True, the Brahmas managed only three wins in league play last year. But any team that has a 6-foot-2 post player in Yewande Alabi can be dangerous.
Jasmine Nguyen provides another scoring threat with experience for coach Tony McCabe.
The Brahmas aren’t likely to pass Bonita or Diamond Ranch in the standings, but they should be able to battle for third place.
Jay Gauthier has built Rosemead into one of the area’s most consistent winners, and there’s no reason that won’t continue this season.
The Panthers swept the Mission Valley League last year and look prepared to do so again thanks to the return of leading scorers Melody Gauthier and Sydney Hua.
Gauthier, now a junior, is one of the area’s better all-around talents. The question is whether Rosemead is ready to take the next step and last a few rounds in the postseason.
If there’s a challenger for Rosemead in the Mission Valley League, it’s Arroyo. The Knights had only two seniors on last year’s roster and boast several experienced returnees.
This year, coach Mike Gorball welcomes back several key contributors and with any improvement Arroyo might be ready to rekindle the rivalry with Rosemead. The only team to beat Arroyo in league last year was Rosemead.
The return of leading scorer Michell Trieu to go with Arelene Reyes gives Gorball something solid to build around.
The Mustangs were gutted by graduation. Gone are top players Nnenna Abaeze, Amy McDill and Tricia Choy. But given how coach Lori Huckler has made the Mustangs a consistent winner, it wouldn’t be wise to count out Walnut simply on the basis that the program can’t reload.
Huckler has reloaded before and there’s no reason not to expect this group of Mustangs to develop well in Huckler’s system. And they certainly will play with an intensity that’s become a hallmark of Huckler teams. The Hacienda League is rough, but there’s no reason Walnut won’t be able to give Diamond Bar and the rest a good test for third place.