It was early October, and there was a distinct possibility Gilroy High would have to do the unthinkable: cancel the varsity girls basketball season. Without a coach, some of the returning seniors on the Mustangs program had thoughts of transferring so they could play their final year of high school basketball.
“It was really tough for us, and some of us were thinking of trying to transfer schools if we weren’t going to have a program,” said Alyssa Harden, a four-year varsity player.
Enter Voltaire Valencia, who agreed to coach the team after previously serving as an assistant coach for three years, from the 2014-2015 season to the 2016-2017 season. The 25-year-old Valencia was already familiar with most of the players and knew the program’s situation, and he expressed excitement in becoming the coach.
“The program was a little bit in flux until I stepped in,” Valencia said. “I love how these girls play with a lot of heart. I have a team full of shooters and have confidence in every single one of them.”
Indeed, as long as a player has an open look, Valencia encourages them to shoot away. In a 47-37 loss to San Benito High on Jan. 15, the Mustangs attempted 34—count ‘em, 34—3-point shots, converting just five of them.
“Some nights the ball doesn’t go in the hoop,” Valencia said. “When the ball is dropping, we can drop 70 (points) on any given night. That is why I give my shooters the green light. At the same time, we live and die by the shot, so we live for the next shot.”
The loss to San Benito dropped Gilroy to 0-3 in the ultra-competitive Pacific Coast League’s Gabilan Division. Given the quality teams in the league and having only eight players on the roster, the Mustangs will be hard-pressed to earn victories. However, any time the Gilroy players take the court is a victory in itself. Six of the eight Gilroy players are seniors and have grown up playing together.
“Playing on this team is a lot of fun because we already have a family bond going on,” said Harden, a senior forward who possesses a strong skill set, with the ability to shoot the 3-pointer and get to the basket off dribble penetration. “We all kind of get each other, and that has made for an enjoyable experience. Even after losses we’ve learned to keep our heads up. We know winning isn’t everything, and winning doesn’t define who you are as a team.”
Especially in this case, since Gilroy only had one or two weeks of practice before it had to play its first game. Harden said even though the season was in limbo, the players who weren’t competing in a fall sport went to the boys team open gyms, Harden said. It didn’t take long for Valencia to realize he had a group who played free and had fun doing it.
The Mustangs are entertaining to watch, as they hoist up 3s at a prodigious rate. Harden isn’t shy about taking a shot beyond the arc; in fact, she attempted a team-high 12 treys against San Benito, making one. So while it wasn’t Harden’s best shooting performance, she and her teammates will keep shooting, because that’s what shooters do.
Maggie Brinkman, a senior power forward, led the team with 10 points. Brinkman was an all-Gabilan Division Second Team player last year, and she has the ability to shoot the 3 and make impact plays on the defensive end. Sina Sydall, a senior post, can go inside or outside and rebounds and plays defense at a high level.
“I tell Sina that every time the ball goes up, I want her touching it,” Valencia said. “She doesn’t let me down. She’s aggressive and we depend on her a lot in the paint. And Maggie is also a really aggressive player and it doesn’t matter what position I put her on the court—she can play it.”
Kaia Adams, a senior point guard and returning all-Gabilan Division First team player, does a nice job of setting the tempo and getting the team into is sets.
“If you need Kaia to go to the rack, she’ll get the foul and the and 1,” Valencia said. “If you need her to let it fly, she’ll shoot that 3.”
Adams went 1 of 6 on 3-point attempts against San Benito, but just like Brinkman, Harden and Vanessa Zozaya, is capable of getting hot from long distance. Having just eight players on the roster does have a benefit in that everyone plays a good chunk of minutes. Sophomores Maggie Santos and Sabrina Lopez are up-and-comers who Valencia expects to make an even bigger impact in the next couple of years. Marissa Galvan, a senior off guard, plays well within the team’s framework and has made a solid contribution.
“We try to sub players in and out and keep the rotation going so everyone has fresh legs,” Valencia said. “We have the talent, we’re conditioned and the last part is putting the ball in the hoop.”