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February 9, 2023

Live Oak girls basketball rebounds in a big way

To say the 2021-2022 season was a tough one for Mike Kiefer would be an understatement. 

The longtime Live Oak High girls basketball coach—this is his 19th year in the program and 13th as the varsity coach with a lot of success—endured a 4-17 season as everyone was new and relatively inexperienced. 

Even in his most down times, Kiefer saw a silver lining, and it was this: the vast majority of the roster was returning for this season and they made a commitment at the end of last season to work hard and improve. 

It’s apparent the players kept their word, because the Acorns entered the week 5-2, having already posted more wins than a year ago. 

“We’re playing really good basketball,” Kiefer said after Live Oak’s 55-27 win over Mount Pleasant on Dec. 13. “The second half was kind of how we’ve been playing, especially defensively. We always preach that everything starts with defense. Defense wins games, rebounding wins championships and we’re just hoping to pack enough offense.”

The Mount Pleasant game was the first without Maya Rafat, who is one of the team’s top two players. She injured her knee in the team’s previous game against Leigh, and Kiefer is obviously hoping for the best. 

“We’ll find out in a week or so what’s the extent of her injury,” Kiefer said. “Either she’s back in three to four weeks or not.”

The fact that the Acorns were able to blow out Mount Pleasant without Rafat speaks volumes to their improvement. It’s not a stretch to say that every returning player—including the top ones like Rafat, Emma Ghione, Isabelle Cline and Rian Henderson—improved and made strides in their game. 

“All of the girls dedicated time in the summer to come out and work and it’s paying off,” Kiefer said. “They’ve all improved dramatically and the improvement is all across the board. They collectively met at the end of last season and put in perspective what we wanted to do this year and then put in the work to make it happen.”

The team has also been buoyed by an influx of talented newcomers who either weren’t on the team last season or received limited minutes, including Amaya Valencia, Isabella Pinula and Maria Munoz, a foreign-exchange student from Spain. 

“Maria is a pleasant surprise,” Kiefer said. “She’s been a great addition not just to the team but overall to the program. She brings an amazing personality, amazing enthusiasm and the girls have absorbed her right in and kind of adopted her as our new teammate.”

Munoz is a 5-foot-6 junior forward who plays much bigger than her size, allowing her to be strong on the boards and grab a lot of rebounds. Ghione provides stability as a strong ball-handler, playmaker and tends to do everything well. 

Her experience as a senior proves vital many times during a game. Cline is a junior guard who can flat-out shoot it. She leads the team in 3-pointers—both made and attempted—and isn’t gun shy, even if she’s not hitting. Cline drained three 3-pointers in a 60-31 loss to Sobrato on Dec. 16.

Pinula had 12 points against Mount Pleasant and just as importantly wreaked havoc on defense. She helped force 38 turnovers—yes, 38—by pestering the opposing players in the back court. Led by Pinula, Live Oak’s pressure was so suffocating that Mount Pleasant advanced the ball past half court just twice on their first 10 possessions in the third quarter.

“She’s a spark, a difference maker,” Kiefer said. “She plays great and is the leader on the defensive end. She sells out every possession, and that’s the goal of all of them: to give it their all every possession. I tell them if you’re working hard you’re tired and if you’re not tired you’re not working hard.” 

Valencia and Henderson are athletic players who make an impact in a variety of ways. Kat Clement also forced several Mount Pleasant turnovers with her pressure in the back court, while Lily Mojica, Ashly Ortega, and Jordan Lara all contributed in the victory as well. Kiefer said it’ll be important for everyone to fill their role and beyond after Rafat’s injury. 

“Losing Maya is big but in the grand scheme of it, it’s also going to allow other girls to have to step up and fill what she does,” he said. “Offense, defense, rebounding, leadership, everything.”

The Acorns’ only two losses have come to a pair of 5-1 teams in Leigh and Sobrato. The defeat to Leigh was by one point as the Longhorns hit a shot with around eight seconds remaining. 

“We’ve been playing some really good teams, laying it out on the floor and fortunate to come away with some wins,” Kiefer said. “Hopefully it’ll keep going. Time will tell.”

Isabella Pinula’s standout defense helped Live Oak force Mount Pleasant into 38 turnovers in their Dec. 13 contest.
Isabelle Cline connects on a deep jump shot and had 11 points against the Cardinals. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.
Emanuel Lee
Emanuel Lee is the sports editor of the Los Gatan, Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Free Lance and Morgan Hill Times. An American High and University of Kentucky alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Gavilan College, various youth sports in south Santa Clara/San Benito counties and pro sports on occasion. Two decades of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. With the Weeklys/NewSVMedia group since 2013. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40 (7:24 mile pace), counts himself as a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza. Coaches, athletic directors and parents are encouraged to report scores to [email protected]

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