After starting the season at 6-0, the Live Oak High girls basketball team ran into a buzzsaw in Leland High last Saturday, dropping a 57-25 contest. The result did nothing to take away from the Acorns’ hot start; rather, it showed Leland’s superiority and gave Live Oak areas to improve in. Mike Kiefer, who is in his 10th season as the Live Oak coach, likes this year’s squad for several reasons.
“Our ultimate goal everyday is to continue to improve our strengths, but also improve our weaknesses,” Kiefer said. “That is something they’ve totally bought into, and one of the things they do is push each other really well. What is great about this group here is we know who our scorers are, but that person doesn’t stand out. They all work within the framework of the team.”
Kiefer was referring to senior point guard Adrianne Gomez and junior wing Raegan Kirk, who have been steady contributors on the team for the last three years. Kiefer described Gomez as “our leader and backbone of our team.” The 5-5 standout moves well in space and makes sound decisions with the basketball.
“Adrianne is not much more than 100 pounds, but she is fierce on the court,” Kiefer said. “She gets us jump-started and whenever we need a pickup, it comes from her. And when teams try to stop her, that’s where Raegan comes in.”
Kirk, who is 5-7 but has a long wingspan, brings a different dynamic. The Acorns like to put her in the post because she can bully smaller players down low or drive and spin past bigger players to get to the basket.
“Versus Sequoia (a 43-28 win on Dec. 7), Raegan explodes for 26 points,” Kiefer said. “But where Adrianne and Raegan really bring it collectively is on defense.”
Ayra Gomez, a junior 5-4 guard, also brings the toughness and intensity in every aspect of the game. The younger sister of Adrianne, Ayra has carved out her own identity with her sparkplug-type play.
“She’s a firecracker,” Kiefer said. “She’s 5-5 but one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen. She has a sense for the ball, and if there is a loose ball, you know she is going to get it. She also makes sure our defense is in place and generates steals. She’s one hell of a basketball player in her own right.”
Alex Jaramillo, a 5-4 senior guard, also brings plenty of intensity, with Kiefer calling her “our defensive stopper.” Nowhere was that more apparent than in the game against Sequoia, which had a terrific point guard.
“You’re talking about a potential top point guard in our area, and Alex shut her down,” Kiefer said. “Alex made her struggle the whole game, and she has the ability to lock down or take a player out of the game and allow other players on the team to do their roaming or whatever we’re planning in a particular game. Her and Ayra are true definitions of girls who play their role to help the team win.”
Kristiana Kingman, a 5-9 senior post, does all the things well for the Acorns to be successful. She plays physical, boxes out, gets rebounds, and is tough defensively. Even though the Acorns lost badly to a quality A-league team in Leland, they’ll assuredly be a better team when Aleah Rafat becomes eligible to play on Jan. 4. A Monte Vista Christian-transfer, the 5-10 Rafat can do it all, which will make Live Oak that much more dynamic.
“She’ll help change our team,” Kiefer said. “She brings the same dynamic as Raegan, and with those two along with Adrianne, we’ll have three players who can score 15 to 20 points on a given night. That will make us extremely difficult to guard. Aleah can shoot the 3, take people off the dribble and make plays. We’ll be a different team in January. We’re all ready and just waiting for the date to come. It’s one of those dates that can’t come fast enough.”
The Acorns are deeper than in years past. Beyond the aforementioned players, they also have quality talent in Chandler Kirk, Isabella Cornoa and Aly Conlan, a senior 5-6 forward who competes against taller players in the post and more than holds her own. Chandler scored 13 points in a 53-11 win over Oakwood on Dec. 9, and Corona along with Kirk are key reserves who are a part of the team’s heavy guard rotation. Live Oak doesn’t run a traditional offense in that almost everyone on the floor is a guard or two guard. Kiefer said the trio of Conlan, Corona and Kirk have made steady contributions this season. Kirk, in particular, has shown plenty of precocious play as a freshman.
“Aly plays very physical and does a lot of the dirty work like diving on the ground to get you the ball,” he said. “She does everything that doesn’t get put in the box score. Chandler is finding her rhythm and groove, figuring out everything on the fly and she’s a really intelligent girl. She has to learn everything as we’re going and she’s figuring it out and adapting.”
Three-fourths of the roster features players who have been running Kiefer’s system for three to four years, and the familiarity with it has been a key component in the team’s fast start. The girls start learning the system at the junior varsity level so by the time they get to the varsity, the learning curve won’t be as steep as they adjust to the speed of the game.
“We start the base of everything at the JV level,” Kiefer said. “We’ll sacrifice the wins at the JV level to understand the concepts (of what it takes to play for the varsity squad).”
Players need to learn the concepts early because Live Oak runs a variety of presses, some more complex in nature than others. The Acorns utilize a base of a 1-2-2 press, but depending on the opponent and circumstance, use other press variations as well. The players have to understand and make changes on the fly, dependent on what the opposing team is doing.
Kiefer relies on a thorough six-week summer program to prepare the team for the rigors of the actual season. The team plays in a league and competes in a couple of tournaments, including a tournament in Lake Tahoe that it turns into an extended retreat of sorts. The players spend four days together, with most of the focus on basketball-related activities.
However, Kiefer makes sure to mix in some non-related basketball events to keep things fresh and build chemistry. The longtime Live Oak coach puts the team in tournaments that feature some high-profile programs, including St. Mary’s of Stockton, Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa and Pleasant Valley of Chico.
“We play in tournaments above our ability,” Kiefer said. “These teams (mentioned above) are crushing us, and we know we’re not at their ability, but we’re learning how to do things. We’re breaking a high efficient press, and we’re learning to control our offense against in many cases D-1 athletes.”
The off the court activities prove to be just as important as the on the court ones.
“We all live in a house together and do everything as a team,” Kiefer said. “We’ll go to the beach or go on a hike. It’s still mostly basketball, but the few hours of downtime we get, we make the most out of.”
The team’s win over Jackson in a summer tournament proved pivotal in that it helped the girls realize they were better than they realized.
“It was at that point the girls realized they could play with anyone,” said Kiefer, who credited the support of the school district and parents for helping to make the yearly trip possible. “One of the benefits of getting approved to play in a few travel tournaments is we live together and build camaraderie. We get on the same page and everyone understands what is needed to make sure we all continue to improve.”
The players do a lot of fundraising for the trips, and over the years parents come with the team and treat it as a vacation for themselves. Kiefer said he rarely if ever talks to his players about winning league championships or making the Central Coast Section playoffs. Instead, he focuses on the process of doing all the little things everyday to improve.
“What we talk about is daily goals, and right now we focus on who’s in front of us and winning the moment,” Kiefer said. “Because if you do that, you have an opportunity to win the game and anything beyond that.”