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Can Del Oro still dominate?

After Johnson’s departure, Eagles return with depth
By: Eric J. Gourley Journal Sports Writer
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LOOMIS — Despite graduating star point guard and two-time league MVP Emilie Johnson, veteran head coach Mike Takayama can’t remember a Del Oro High girls basketball squad like this. “Realistically I can start any one of 11 players and we wouldn’t miss a beat,” Takayama said. “Our depth in talent is as great as we’ve ever had.” Now at UC Santa Barbara, Johnson averaged more than 13 points per game during an illustrious four-year varsity career in leading the Golden Eagles to a combined 97-17 overall record (47-3 SFL) and four consecutive league championships. “People expect that now that Emilie is gone our reign is over,” Takayama said. “I don’t see it that way and the players don’t see it that way.” Six of nine juniors return from a squad that went 23-5 and fell in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals for the second straight season. Among those seniors, Courtney Nolen is the only one who saw significant playing time last season. “My main concern is that only Courtney has a lot of Del Oro basketball experience,” Takayama said. “The rest didn’t get quite as much playing time as juniors as I thought they would, but they made up a lot of ground during the summer. They just don’t have a lot of on-court experience at the varsity level.” Nolen, a fourth-year player who will continue her career at Eastern Washington next season on a full-ride scholarship, averaged seven points, six rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. After playing in the shadows of offensive standouts Johnson and Mackenzie Bailey, “now it’s her opportunity to step up and shine,” Takayama said. “I don’t necessarily feel pressure because I know that my teammates have my back and it’s not all on me,” Nolen said. “But I’m totally ready to do it.” Point guard Sam Hodge saw some playing time as a junior last season behind Johnson, and figures to have many options both inside and out while running the offense. “We don’t try to compare her to Emilie and I don’t think people should,” Takayama said. “What Sam brings to the table is enough for us to make a run at our fifth straight league championship.” Hodge isn’t trying to fill Johnson’s shoes, either. “I’m not expected to be her but I’m going to do the best job I can and play the way I know how to play. I don’t think about it,” she said. The Eagles also add senior transfer Meghan Huckaby, who averaged 16.8 points in leading Freedom Christian of Fair Oaks to the Division V section semifinals last season. Starting small forward Katie Pulliam could be the team’s best shooter, while senior Lucy Campbell also returns as a much-improved threat on offense. “She’s a very cerebral player,” Takayama said of Campbell. “She has put together a nice game now. She’ll be the glue to keep things together for us, and she’s improved her outside perimeter shooting.” Campbell’s sophomore sister Madeline scored 20 points to lead all scorers in Del Oro’s 70-39 foundation win over Colfax Monday. Center Hannah Dobb brings height to the paint at 5-foot-11. “She’ll be a blue collar worker for us as far as getting all those rebounds and doing all the little things to help us get that success,” Takayama said. Nolen and senior Kezzia Tragesser stand tallest on the team, both at 6-foot-2. “We have so much length this year, yet at the same time if we want to have a fast team out there we can,” Hodge said. Del Oro is the three-time defending champion at the Sonora Kiwanis Tournament this weekend. The Eagles then return home, where they are 47-2 over the last four seasons, to host Casa Roble Monday and Placer the following week. Del Oro hosts the Lady Eagle Invitational Dec. 18-20. After the winter break the Eagles kick off the new year with difficult tests against St. Francis, Kennedy and Carson in Nevada. The complete inside-out game already has the Eagles excited about the idea of winning a third section title and first since Del Oro beat Bear River to win it all in 1999. “We’re further along at this point than any team we’ve had,” Takayama said. “Our January will be tough. That’ll be a test to see how we perform in those types of games. A lot of people might say Granite Bay is the favorite with two all-league players coming back. I think we’ll be right there. It’ll be interesting to see how much we mature. We’re definitely on a good path.”