The Del Norte girls basketball team has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder as it heads into the 2018–19 season.
Last year the Warriors ultimately finished with a 16-10 overall record while going 5-3 overall in the Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 league to take third place. But the team felt it was much closer to a breakthrough than the raw record appears.
In reality, Del Norte came within a questionable foul call on a half court desperation heave in Arcata from finishing in at least a three-way tie for the Big 5 League title. Additionally, each of the nine teams that accounted for the Warriors’ 10 losses last year ended their seasons in their respective state tournaments.
“Our goal is to win league — we should have had it last year,” said Del Norte senior Denise Horton. “We have to work as a team, commit a lot fewer turnovers, run our plays and just listen to our coach because he knows best. We are coming back from the Arcata game last year and we want revenge on everybody. There is no mercy this year.”
Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton said he has seen that mindset consistently through early season practices.
“There is a lot of excitement — these girls are hungry,” he said. “I have coached for a few years and I have never seen a team that has been this hungry. I don’t know if it is all pent up from last year or what, but they are hungry. The senior leadership has been awesome. They want to win, and they want to play right now. The first practice was a little rough as the girls get back into it, but in the second week we were ready to play.”
Players and coaches said they feel like this year’s team has better chemistry and has been in a better flow throughout the preseason. Part of that is due to familiarity with one another, after having to adjust to a new coach and groups of players that hadn’t ever competed together before.
“Last year was a little awkward at times. The freshman had never played with the seniors, and the juniors had never played with the sophomores,” Horton said. “We were also adjusting to youngsters playing better than what youngsters are usually like. This year is all girls that have been playing together since we were freshman, and since they were seventh and eighth graders. So we all work with each other well. We make eye contact and we know when a pass is coming. We are like a family together.”
The Warriors will be without a pair of graduating seniors from last year — Payten Healy and Claire Smith — who were both four-year starters on the team. That experince was espeically valuable for some of the Warriors’ younger players last year.
“We had really good seniors last year; Payten Healy taught me a lot,” said sophomore guard Bella Stone. “She taught me to stay calm, to run the offense and to do what coach asks you to do because as a point guard you really have to listen. They taught us a lot last year.”
This year’s team is also at an advantage compared to last year with its full team ready to start practice by the end of October, after the team had to wait through November for the volleyball team last year.
While a full team at practice has certainly benefitted team chemistry early, Clifton said it has also had a more direct effect on senior captain Kaleya Sanchez.
“Last year her shot was off. They went deep into volleyball and when they came to basketball her shot was off and it was frustrating,” Clifton said of Sanchez. “This year is probably the best I have seen her shoot since back in eighth grade, which is the last time I’ve seen her really shoot the basketball.”
Clifton said fellow captain Horton is also competing at a different level leading up to her senior season.
“I haven’t seen this much excitement out of her in the four years that I have known her,” Clifton said. “She is excited, she is ready to go, and she is being a great leader. She has an attitude on her — we all know that — but the girls all look up to her and she is keeping them motivated.”
Senior Shelby Horner is also back on the team this season after taking a couple years away from basketball.
Horner is back on the court for Del Norte for the first time since her freshman season, but she is already an accomplished Warrior athlete. Since she last played on the basketball court, Horner has become starter on one of the best softball teams in the section and has also played two years of varsity volleyball.
“Shelby is having to pick it up a little bit, because she hasn’t played since her freshman year,” Clifton said. “But she has been good, she knows her role and she has good leadership.”
All of the other 11 girls on the roster are returning from at least some experience last year. The Warriors have five juniors on the roster, including returning regular varsity contributors Daniela Zepeda-Garcia, and Selene Ledezma-Olmedo. Each of the other juniors spent most of the season on the JV but played at least one game on the varsity roster last season.
Del Norte also has a big sophomore class of Jadence Clifton, Bella Stone, Maykala Jackson, and Kirsten Brous, who all played significant varsity minutes as freshmen.
“We have 12 girls, and we can get 5-on-5 every single day,” Justin Clifton said. “We can make two competitive teams and we can go hard. My second team could do very well, so we are deep. There are good and bad things about being deep, but we are deep.”
Having that depth should give the Warriors lots of versatility this season, but there will still only be one ball. In order for Del Norte to reach its full potential, Clifton said each of the players will need to embrace their role and figure out how to excel in it.
“The key for us is our team. We have to keep our chemistry,” Clifton said. “We have started out really well this year but we have to keep that — that chemistry has to be there. We don’t want the bickering, the fighting, and this and that. Every girl on this team has a role — some of them are better than others, but every girl on this team has a role. We have to keep that chemistry; they have to buy into the program, and I think we will be just fine. We will compete every night.”
If the team can maintain its chemistry, Clifton said he thinks Del Norte could be in for its best girls basketball season ever.
“From everything I have seen Del Norte has never won the league in girls basketball. — we are trying to bring it this year,” Clifton said. “I told the girls that we will start with that, but my goal is that I want to win the section championship, and I know we can get there. We have the talent to get there, and the girls have been all in. There has been no real drama.”
Just like last year, when the Warriors played perhaps the toughest preseason schedule in school history, wins may be difficult to come by in the preseason for Del Norte.
The Warriors dominated the Yreka Tournament with lopsided wins in every game last year and are likely favored to have a similar showing again as Del Norte officially kicks off its season at the Miner Mountain Blast on Thursday.
After the opening weekend things will get much tougher, but the Warriors feel ready for the challenge.
“You get more experience, which makes it a lot better,” Stone said of playing in tough non-league games. “We went to the Oakland Tournament last year, which was a really good experience. We are excited to go to Hidden Valley this year, and we are also playing South Medford in the preseason, so those are some really good teams.”
Stone said she thought the team may have become a little bit overconfident early last season with a handful of lopsided wins to start the year. This season Del Norte has a better idea of what is coming down the road.
“In the early tournaments obviously the overall goal is to take first, but we need to run the offense and work on our defensive sets,” Stone said. “It will toughen us up definitely. We went to Yreka last year and we kind of got big heads because we didn’t play very good teams. When we went to Oakland it was an eye opener. They are just better teams. They are more aggressive and they play better defensively. This season I feel like we will be a lot more focused and know what we need to go up against to get better.”
After a month of playing against one another, the Warriors will finally get to kick off the regular season in Yreka. Del Norte is scheduled to open play on Thursday, with games also scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Yreka.
The Warriors will open play Thursday at 2:30 p.m. against Modoc.