After a pair of second place finishes, Darnell Cherry wants to go to the top. More importantly, so do the members of the women’s basketball team he coaches.
Cherry said he has high hopes for a squad anchored by speedy sophomore guards Alexis Harris, Cardedra Evans and Gabby Robledo.
“We want to win conference,” he said. “We’ve come in second the last two years, so we just want to go get it.”
The Lady Jaguars are off to a great 5-0 start. They tipped off the season by winning the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament at Mesa College, defeating Rio Hondo College in the final, 64-58. Evans and Robledo were both honored as All-Tournament team players, with Robledo earning tournament MVP honors.
Robledo racked up 18 points 7 rebounds and 3 steals in the title game, while Evans added 7 points, 14 rebounds and 2 steals.
Freshmen Grace Ward and Brianna Davis played key roles defensively, with a combined 16 rebounds, 8 steals and 5 blocks.
Cherry said he can buck convention and win with homegrown talent.
“This year we’re all local,” he said. “Everyone is from San Diego County and they are all great kids. I really enjoy working with this team.”
Brianna Davis, a 5’11 forward from Otay Ranch, and Grace Ward, a 5’9 guard from Hoover, are rebounding machines that play strong defense.
Monique Bueno, Tia Griffis and Zykeisha Dewberry are all from Serra High School. They bring the experience of winning a Division II CIF championship last season. With their talent and chemistry it will be hard for Cherry to keep them off the floor.
Representing the South Bay are guards Sierra Thomas from Chula Vista, Laura Tapia from Montgomery and Taylor Smalley from Eastlake. All are great ball handlers, Cherry said, and were the MVPs of their high school teams.
New faces bring new challenges, said Cherry.
“Communicating more, that’s one of the hardest things to teach, especially freshman on defense,” he said. “They have to get rid of the bad habits developed in high school. We try to get them familiar with the terminology and bring their skill development up so that their skills fit not only in our system, but those at a four-year school as well.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for success is the team’s cohesiveness.
“We got a nice little bond going on,” said Evans. “We all have the same goal.”
A common vision has the Lady Jags searching for the best shot, not just their own. Robledo said that is the way it should be.
“It’s very important to get everyone involved because all of us need to play together as a team,” she said. “Like coach says in practice, we got to make that extra pass.”
In a home opening 76-56 win against LA Trade Tech College, SWC dominated from the opening tip. The Lady Jags came out in a full court press that resulted in three steals for layups the first 36 seconds of the game.
Harris said to expect that kind of play all season.
“We like to go hard and press them early to get ahead,” she said. “It didn’t look like we came out slow but we came out slower than usual.”
Robledo led the way on both ends of the floor with 8 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds and 7 steals. The Lady Jag’s combined for 19 assists and 20 steals.
“We expect a lot out of our bench,” she said. “We’re small so we need to come out with a lot of energy and intensity. We’re going to be subbing a lot so it’s very important for our bench to know what’s going on.”
Depth is an advantage for the Lady Jags, said Harris.
“We’re really confident (in our bench),” she said. “We’re all the same caliber, so the more people that come in with energy the better.”
It would not be as pretty against Compton College. With seven minutes to play the Lady Jag’s lead was cut to just six points. They closed the door on the rally with stifling defense. Robledo once again lit the fuse, stripping the ball away from the defender and then finding teammate Tapia for a wide-open layup.
The Lady Jag’s went on an 8-0 run that suffocated Compton players and forced them to intentionally foul as time ticked away. SWC finished the job at the free throw line and came away with a 67-58 victory despite turning the ball over 39 times, a season high.
Cherry said he is happy with a win, but works to improve.
“We have to take care of the ball better, too many turnovers,” he said. “We also need to team rebound defensively. Usually we have taller post players, but we don’t have that this year so we have to rebound by committee.”
Robledo said the team needs to communicate better.
“We lack a little bit on that with each other,” she said. “We need to be able to talk to each other, let each other know we have their back, knowing who to guard when a new person comes into the game.”
After the Lady Jags played three grinding out-of-town tournaments, Cherry said he is pacing his team for the long season.
“In years past we trained real hard and it seems to me that as we get into December and the tournament season, we’ve kind of been wearing down,” he said. “This year we’ve cut back the practice hours and are getting more prepared mentally for three games in three days.”