At the end of a practice 2 ½ weeks ago, Sobrato High girls basketball coach Erica Wallace gathered the players for what was supposed to be a brief conversation. The meeting ended up taking an hour. It was well worth it. Since then—coincidence or not—the Bulldogs have shown signs of life after a rough 0-5 start to the season.
They reeled off three straight wins before suffering a 56-38 loss to a strong Watsonville squad on Dec. 19. Senior point guard Angeline Madriaga said the impact of that team meeting was a watershed moment for the team, as players talked with each other with heartfelt emotion and many tears were shed. Madriaga said the players needed to be transparent and put it all out there because they didn’t know or understand each other, and that contributed to the team’s struggles on the court.
“We felt like we needed to know each other on a deeper level because the team was so mixed with a lot of new people, and we really wanted to bond,” said Madriaga, who was a Blossom Valley League Mount Hamilton Division First Team selection last year. “(During the meeting) we were super emotional, and we came out of our shells and talked about struggles we had at school or at home. We really got to understand each other and knew how to convey criticism to each other while also doing it in the best way possible for each person. I think that talk had a lot to do with the wins we picked up.”
Even though Sobrato finished in a tied for second in the Mount Hamilton Division last year, the coaches voted to move them down to the Santa Teresa East Division this season, taking in the fact the Bulldogs would graduate key senior starters, including 2019 graduate Kianna Maldia, who is now playing at Sonoma State.
Thanks to the maturation of some key newcomers, the return of Madriaga—she missed the first six games due to a concussion she suffered in the scrimmage before the season-opener—and the team meeting, the Bulldogs can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel after opening the season 0-5. Sobrato didn’t just lose its first five games; it was getting blasted in the process. However, the future looks brighter as the Bulldogs will return another standout in junior post Trezure Tu’ua, who was the Mount Hamilton Division Sophomore of the Year last season.
Tu’ua is a load in the paint and tough for any girl to guard, possessing tremendous strength and power while knowing how to score from close range. She also rebounds the ball with authority and is a decent shot blocker. Wallace is literally counting down the days before Tu’ua makes her return, which is imminent pending she checks out health-wise.
“Trezure returning will be a huge difference,” Wallace said. “She’s been a great captain and leading the girls verbally. … And getting Angeline back changed everything. Our freshmen and sophomores can get real crazy at times, and we’ll do amazing on defense, but get a little too excited on offense. We needed someone with more experience to calm the chaos down because we have a lot of youngsters getting a lot of floor time.”
One of the up-and-coming players is freshman Makayla Heffernan, who drew praise from both Wallace and Madriaga for being poised and producing early in the season. Heffernan, a shooting guard, earned all-tournament honors at the Gunderson Classic, where she averaged 15 points and five steals per game.
“You look at the skills she has, and it reminds you a little bit of what Kianna had,” Wallace said. “Makayla has a lot of strong guard skills, and she should only get better.”
Senior center Kira Levandoski is averaging over six blocks a game, Wallace said, while altering countless other shots. A part-time starter last year, Levandoski has emerged as a defensive tour de force, and the team will need her to continue to wreak havoc in the paint.
“Kira has been holding it down in the post and doing well,” Wallace said. “She’s tall and has a wingspan of 74 inches, which helps her to block shots or force opponents into misses.”
While Levandoski mans the paint, junior Georgia Elderkin has been the defensive leader when the team employs full-court pressure. Elderkin is vocal on the court, helping with the team’s communication and rotations.
“She’s got a high basketball IQ, is doing amazing all over the floor and is grabbing a lot of rebounds,” Wallace said. “She’s turning into a leader, which is great to see.”
Sophomore Olivia Tapia was holding down the point guard position in Madriaga’s absence, and no doubt improved by having such a big responsibility heaped on her shoulder.
“She’s a freaking amazing kid and off the court is a police cadet,” Wallace said. “She’ll be a future captain of this team if she keeps playing and working hard. She’s got the discipline and focus.”
As Sobrato further develops its chemistry, it will play better and more wins should follow. Outside of Madriaga, Tu’ua and Levandoski, the team is comprised of mostly newcomers or players who didn’t see much playing time last season.
“It was definitely hard at first this year because we were a completely new team in a way,” Madriaga said. “We’re still building that team chemistry, but when you see a player like Makayla—who can shoot lights-out from 3-point range—gain confidence and play well, you know things are going in a positive direction.”
Madriaga has already had to overcome a lot this season after suffering a concussion in the scrimmage. In the weeks that followed, Madriaga lost 10 pounds due to a lack of appetite from always being nauseated. She couldn’t practice and waking up everyday proved painful. Madriaga suffered the concussion after knocking heads with an opponent.
“I brushed it off and kept on playing (in the game), which made it worse,” she said. “At first the doctors didn’t want me to play until 2020, but fortunately I got better and am back playing now. Before that, I was sitting on the bench and just really wanting to get back in it.”
Wallace said Madriaga provides leadership and elevates her teammates’ play. Madriaga makes smart passes and is adept at finding a high percentage shot. Even though Madriaga didn’t play any AAU basketball this past off-season, she practiced a lot over the summer, putting a lot of shots up with Travis Turnipseed, who is one of the standouts on the boys basketball team.
“He’s a really good shooter and his intensity is always up there,” she said. “And if I ever got down on myself, he would get me back up. I ended up feeling confident with my shots and getting my rhythm down playing with him.”