On Jan. 30, playing at Eureka High School in a hostile environment, the Del Norte High girls basketball team had a lead to protect.
The Warriors wavered periodically but never toppled, eventually sealing the deal on a 53-41 victory.
It was the first Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League victory for Del Norte girls basketball since a 51-46 victory over Fortuna on Feb. 8, 2011. Where the Warriors had faded in the past, they finished the job on the night.
“You could tell our experiences in other close games had paid off,” senior Emma Card said.
The locker room, according to the players, was a mixture of excitement and relief. Players shouted encouragement at each other, high-fived and hugged.
“It changed what I thought about the program,” junior post Kaitlyn Clemann said. “I don’t think we knew we could do it. I don’t think we knew our potential.”
The Warriors’ overall record wasn’t sterling: 10-12 overall, and that win against Eureka proved to be the only one in eight league games. Nevertheless, Del Norte recorded its first double-digit winning season since the 2009–10 squad went 12-13 overall, also going 1-7 in HDN play.
“I felt that our team just laid a foundation (for) down the road,” Warriors head coach Mike Ernest said. “They showed how basically, when you come together and have an identity in terms of being disciplined, being selfless, and (being coachable), positive things can happen.”
As a first-year coach who had never interacted with his team on any level previously, Ernest faced the challenge of implementing his basketball system while developing a big-picture image of Del Norte girls basketball.
“Did they meet all my expectations? No, they didn’t,” Ernest said. “Does that mean they were failures, no. I had high expectations for myself. I told them I expected them to win the league. It’s really me telling myself I need to prepare these girls to win league.
“That will always be my goal, every year. I think our girls understand that.”
Del Norte’s core group was its four-person senior class: Taylor Cleland, Brittany Maready, Emma Card and Sammy Jo Swinger. Maready was the Warriors’ leading scorer, Cleland the floor general at point guard, Card the post player willing to sacrifice herself and Swinger the sixth woman.
“They did a lot for our program,” Ernest said. “They did a lot of things that no one expected them to do going into this season. They were able to accomplish a lot of firsts. They were the ones who bought into my belief system. They were leaders into the school year.”
Del Norte’s most improved player over the course of the season was Clemann, who led the Warriors in rebounding over the second half of the season.
“I know, last year, I wasn’t very aggressive,” she said. “This year, I’m rebounding a lot more. I’m more intense.
Freshman Regin Loftin quickly proved that she belonged at the varsity level, starting for the Warriors at guard. Juniors Panhia Yang and Ericka Alcala and sophomores Kayla Costello, Jordan Babich and Grace Bruschi contributed off the bench.
The Del Norte junior varsity and freshman teams struggled with uneven play, injuries and personnel moves, as players advanced up a level.
The Warriors’ junior varsity team, coached by Andrew Fitch, finished with a 1-7 record in HDN play. (Overall records were unavailable at press time.) Rostered players include Costello, Babich, Bruschi, Sabrina Gonzalez, Colleen Markussen, Haley Jones, Jadelyn Aguirre, Sierra McDonald and Joely Tynes.
The Del Norte freshman roster (2-6 in HDN play) included Tynes, Katie Aguirre, Rebeckah Bustamante, Rylee Bachman, Maddie Critz, Siera Fitzhugh, Brianna Long, Sam Lundin, Rachel Rowe and Karlee Scott. Kristie Gavin served as head coach of the team.