Great expectations remain at Del Oro

Golden Eagles are young, but they will resume their quest for a section crown
By: Eric J. Gourley Journal Sports Writer
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LOOMIS — Thirty-eight consecutive league wins. A 26-2 overall record last season. A remarkable 61-3 home mark over the last five years. All impressive numbers, but to the Del Oro girls basketball team, their dominance this decade feels incomplete without a section title. The Golden Eagles fell to perennial power Sacramento High in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals for the third time in four years, finishing with one of the best records in school history but falling a win short of playing for their third section crown and first since 1999. “We’re definitely shooting that high again,” said junior Belle Obert. “We have a really young team, but at the same time a lot of us have been playing together for a long time.” Del Oro graduated a whopping seven seniors from one of its deepest teams ever. Gone are Katie Pulliam, the only double-digit scorer, and point guard Samantha Hodge. Center Courtney Nolen, who led the team with 84 blocks and averaged a second-best 8.8 points per game, became the second Eagle to sign with a Division I school in as many years when she accepted a full-ride to Eastern Washington after standout point guard Emilie Johnson chose to continue her playing career at UC Santa Barbara in 2008. A rebuilding year? Not for Del Oro basketball. “We haven’t lowered our expectations at all,” head coach Mike Takayama said. “We didn’t know at this point last season that we were going to be 26-2 at the end. This team has more ball-handlers, and I think when you play St. Mary’s and the Sac Highs, you really have to have five people on the floor who can handle the basketball. I feel like possibly our ceiling might be even a little bit higher, even though at this time we don’t have the physicality that we did last year. We’re banking that our depth is going to be greater than the other team on the floor.” While Obert averaged only 4.5 points last season, she finished with team highs in rebounds (205) and steals (69). Her 57 blocks were second to Nolen. “Belle has just evolved into this defensive player for us,” Takayama said. The coach expects Obert and 5-foot-10 forward Crystal Sewell to each average a double-double. “Maybe between them we’ll get 25-30 points per game from the post area,” Takayama said. “That would be more points than we’ve had from that area in a long time.” Junior Madeline Campbell, a sharp-shooting guard who averaged 8.1 points last season, evolved into more of an all-around player over the summer. “She’s much more aware of things other than her shooting this year,” Takayama said. “She really wasn’t as important defensively or a big threat to take it to the basket last season. Those are areas that we’ve really tried to get her to work on, and she has. Her overall game has really stepped up. She’s going to be one of those really good players for us who also makes those around her better.” Junior Becky Duncan is the third starting point guard in as many years. She’ll share time at the position with sophomore Erin Becker. “Becky has developed a lot over the summer,” Takayama said. “The ball is in her hands now. We have to solidify that position and I think she can do that. Anytime you look at how far a team goes, you have to look at the point guard. You’ll go as far as your point guard can take you.” Freshman Brianna Ruiz, a 5-foot-11 forward, has shown promise inside. “We might even have greater overall size than last year, we just need to get more physical if we want to be up there with the top echelon teams,” Takayama said. While they’ve turned winning the Sonora Kiwanis Tournament into a season-opening ritual, the Eagles had a tougher road to their fourth straight victory at the event last weekend. Del Oro fought past a pair of Division I powers, downing Mission San Jose 47-36 in the semifinals before holding off Alameda in the championship 39-35. “We got to play some really good basketball teams,” Takayama said. The Eagles will host their annual tournament Dec. 17-19 and take part in the West Coast Jamboree in Brentwood Dec. 28-31 before putting their Sierra Foothill League streak on the line when they open at much-improved Woodcreek on Jan. 8. “I don’t really keep track of those things but I think the girls understand that there’s a tradition and they definitely don’t want to be the ones to drop the ball,” Takayama said. “At the same time, it’s a young team. You don’t want to stunt their growth. I think we can be the best team around — wherever — next year. Obviously we want to win game-by-game this year, but if you look at our future, we possibly could have the best team that we’ve ever had next year. We’re not looking by this year by any means.” Added Campbell: “We make our own identity each year. Really, we’re a unique team this year in that we’re younger but we’re experienced. There’s always pressure, but I think we’re strong enough to handle it.”