Oak Ridge High School’s varsity girls basketball team begins preseason play this week, taking to the court for the first time after winning last year’s state championship game in an upset over Long Beach Polytechnic, long a dominant team in postseason action.
With several strong players returning this year, the team has the means to go far — perhaps even another trip to the CIF State championship. But it won’t happen without hard work and the development of new strategies to make up for last year’s graduation of one of the most standout players in the nation.
Oak Ridge lost one of their all-time greatest female athletes last year with the graduation of Sara James. The 5-foot-10 shooting guard averaged 34 points and seven assists per game, all while capturing the hearts of fans and the attention of college recruiters.
James is currently in her introductory season for the Stanford Cardinals, where she was offered a scholarship before rising to be the No. 18 recruit in the nation. The team opened their season with a victory over Rutgers Friday, Nov. 14.
Despite the outstanding performances James put in game after game, Oak Ridge’s girls have always played strongest as a team, able to dominate games with their star player on the bench.
Still, Oak Ridge coach Steve White admits the team’s offensive game will look very different.
“Sara was an outstanding player,” White said in an interview with Village Life. “We’re going to have to get that same production by committee. Any given day we have three to five players who have the ability to score 20 points in a game, but that’s not going to happen every time with any one of them,” he said.
There is star power left among the returning players. Now a senior, Carly Bettencourt averaged 15 points, 10 assists and six steals per game last year. Natalie Stone and Dakota McLarnan were also major contributors.
White and the Trojans got a firsthand glimpse at the team’s strengths and weaknesses with early season scrimmages against Clovis West, Del Oro and Kennedy. The teams split up and worked both half and full-court tactics.
“Our overall performance was very raw,” White said. “There were some good moments, but we’re focusing on areas that need improvement and further strategizing. It’s going to take work to get us playing as a team.”
In addition to reworking team strategy, Oak Ridge players have some healing to do … literally.
“We’re a little beat up right now,” White said. “Three players are out with injuries, all on post. We’ve got to get healthy before we can be competitive.”
The Lady Trojans hit the court for the first time Monday, Nov. 29, to face off with the girls from Rocklin, who were 9 and 16 last season. While he sounded confident in his team’s ability to win, he admitted anything could happen.
“First games are always weird,” White said. “It’s usually whoever catches fire and executes better at the beginning of the game ends up with the win. We have the potential to do very well again this year. But with a tough schedule we’ll need to sneak in some early wins as we learn to play together.”
Monday’s opener will be played at the Oak Ridge High School gym. Varsity plays at 7 p.m.