Scotts Valley High girls' basketball team finished with a 5-5 record in SCCAL play and earned a CCS playoff berth this season. (contributed)

Scotts Valley High girls’ basketball team lost a trio of key players in Kaitlin Imai, Eliana Benoit and Ava Turowski due to graduation, which left a major void going into their season opener back in November.

The Falcons had some solid players returning, but everyone was still new to each other. 

It took a while for them to gel as a unit, but once Scotts Valley coach Kanani Thomas saw them growing into what they had been working toward, she knew something special was brewing. 

“This year was about new roles and new opportunities,” Thomas said.

The players flourished in their new roles by taking the Falcons all the way to the Central Coast Section playoffs, where they beat Gonzales High, 51-42, in the Division IV quarterfinals Feb. 17.

Scotts Valley’s season came to end following a 57-25 loss to Harker School on Feb. 18. They finished the season with an 8-16 overall record and tied for third in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League with a 5-5 record in league play. 

It was a nice turnaround after starting the season by losing six straight until picking up their first win against St. Francis High on Dec. 20. 

Scotts Valley also got off to a rocky start in league play after losing to Santa Cruz, 67-17, yet they managed to bounce right back in a close 30-28 loss to Soquel High on Jan. 6.

This year’s roster featured four seniors in Elana McGrew, Hailey McKinney, Audrey Watson and Amy Weiss.

Scotts Valley didn’t have a JV team and the varsity squad was just thrown together. Thomas said the choice to not have a JV team was to prevent injuries and keep the players together, see what they could build over the course of the season. 

A mixed group of 14 upperclassmen and underclassmen made up the roster and splitting that up into two teams would’ve made it a long season for both teams.

The coaching staff wanted to build a foundation and set expectations for the players. Thomas said it turned out really well and it was due to the leadership of the seniors.

It was a testament to their leadership by welcoming the underclassmen with empathy and building with the pieces that they had. 

“They really set that tone for the season,” she said. “Even for them I was grateful to them every day for trusting me and my assistant coach.”

Thomas is the third head coach in four years for the senior class. So, it took time for the coaching staff to earn the players’ trust and have them play their style of basketball.

McGrew had to make the transition from rebound machine to one of the lead guards because of her experience. The seniors had to take on those new roles in order for them to become successful. 

“That was part of the growing pains at the beginning part of the year,” Thomas said. “We had returning players that are learning new things and young players that are being thrown into the fire.”

Despite not having a winning record, Thomas mentioned they hung around in just about each of the games they competed in this season. 

“We have this saying and this is partly from me, ‘We never lose, we either win or we learn,’” she said. “I can really see that mentality throughout each one of those games where the scoreboard says one thing, but every single game we learn something more about ourselves as a team.”

It’s the reason they started to click at the end of the season and they worked extremely hard to get to that point, Thomas added. 

Every challenge with a first-year coach is each one has a different baseline, but the biggest obstacle was still overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic. The skill set levels were all over the place. 

Thomas called this particular group of seniors the most resilient group she’s ever seen because they had their first three years altered by the pandemic.

Thomas—who coached at Soquel and Harbor high schools—said it took time for the players to get back to full speed on the court and create a team environment. The goal is to infuse the team bonding experience not just outside of practice but in the gym, as well.

“We’re trying to set standards and opportunities to lead, to improve their communication and to make sure we’re always playing for each other,” she said. “Even if you’re not in the game, you’re in the game.”

Thomas is proud of how the bench is engaged as much as she is during the game. She recalls their first league win against Soquel because it wasn’t due to the stellar play on the floor, but the coaching staff overwhelmed the players with that same intensity and energy.

“You can feel that difference,” she said. 

Thomas is looking forward to the nine girls who she believes will return next season and continue to build upon what they’ve done. The best compliment she could give to the seniors is they left the program better than they found it when they started four years ago.

Because of the way the seniors lead the program, Thomas believes the new players want to work just as hard and keep the legacy going.

A majority of the returning players will compete on an Amateur Athletic Union basketball club including Brooklyn Williams, who Thomas said is one of the hardest working freshman.

Williams hit six 3-pointers in the D-IV opener against Gonzales High and developed her shot from beyond the arc as the season progressed. 

Amaya Guerra was another freshman who was able to use her left handed dribbling skills to take the ball up the court and built the confidence to also attempt the three point shot.

Abby Shi, a sophomore, also developed a good shoot from long range that helped the Falcons spread the ball on the floor. Thomas believes the future is looking extremely promising.

“These younger players are just working on their game so much that they’ve started finding success,” Thomas said. “We just couldn’t quite get there over that hump in that [CCS] second round but that didn’t deter them…for me that tells me they’re on the right track.”

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A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.


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