Christopher focuses on the process

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Cougars freshman Sarah Arcelo earned a berth in the CIF State Cross Country Championships in November before making a successful transition to the basketball court. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Christopher High girls basketball team has a goal to be its own version of a D.R.E.A.M. team. It’s their acronym for discipline, respect, effort, attitude and mentality. The Cougars want to grade high in all of those categories. If they do, they’ll look back on the 2019-2020 season as a smashing success—no matter how they finish record-wise. 

“We like to talk about how we do all those things. It doesn’t happen after every game, but the conversation always comes back to that eventually,” said Heather Stewart, who is in her second go-around as the coach at Christopher and in her sixth year overall with the program. “We want to do well in things like being respectful toward the officials, or did we have a fearless mentality of playing. We’re working on putting all that together, so we can be the dream team.”

Christopher evened its record to 7-7 after Monday night’s 61-30 win over crosstown rival Gilroy High. In the game before that, the Cougars hit their high water mark of the season, defeating Santa Cruz, 52-42. Santa Cruz entered the week at 10-4, so it was definitely a big win and confidence booster for Christopher. 

“It was a huge win,” Stewart said. “We had taken a beating the night before to Los Gatos High School, and we kind of re-assessed a little bit. We had our youth step up. When we made a big run in the second half, we had three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior on the court. Our youth showed a lot of energy and fire, and they really stepped it up.”

Stewart said having three freshmen on the floor in the decisive surge against Santa Cruz “represented a great symbol for us of the future.” Stewart has utilized several different starting lineups this season, a reminder to the girls that no one can rest on their laurels and expect to be in the starting lineup—they have to continually earn the spot. 

“I think it’s important for the girls to understand that anyone can start a game,” Stewart said. “At any given time, the matchups are different, and my lineup does change.”

The Cougars have just one senior in the starting lineup, but she’s a good one. Point guard Kat Javier can do it all, and this season she’s grown in her overall ability to elevate the play of her teammates. At 5-foot-2, Javier is always one of the smallest girls on the court. However, she possesses tremendous skills, including being able to shoot from 3-point range and the ability to get to the basket off dribble penetration. 

“Kat is definitely a spark and provides a lot of fire,” Stewart said. “She’s a scrapper and takes winning seriously. She definitely gets after it, and it’s nice to see her start to trust other teammates. She’s a pesky defender, which is nice when we’re pressing (the opponent).”

Mia Ledesma-Old Elk, a 5-10 junior forward/center, erupted for a career-high 30 points to go along with 14 rebounds, seven blocks and four assists in a 67-61 loss to Piedmont Hills on Dec. 28. Stewart was particularly proud of Ledesma-Old Elk because she scored a fair amount of her points with the left hand, something she couldn’t do in previous years. 

“That game showed her she could score with her left hand, and we saw what she was really capable of,” Stewart said. “I think that game lit a fire under her. She’s pretty much the only height we have, and once she learns how to block out, she’s really going to dominate our league in rebounding. She’s already out-jumping players, and she’s starting to understand how to use her body. Her basketball IQ is growing and she asks good questions.”

Stewart added that Ledesma-Old Elk has taken on a leadership role, one that suits her well because teammates respect her voice, and she’s able to connect with the younger and older players on the team. Mikaela Santiago, a 5-2 junior guard, plays basketball year-round and has everything a coach wants in a player from an attitude and mental standpoint. 

“She is the ultimate competitor,” Stewart said. “She doesn’t mind contact, and she’ll battle and make sure you feel her, which I like in a player. She adds offensive firepower and can shoot from the perimeter and get to the rim. I would actually like her to shoot more from the perimeter because I think she has a nice shot. She’s a scrappy defender on the ball, and she’s getting better at help-side defense. That is where her game is really growing.”

The only other senior on the team, Destiny Okoronkwo, has made an impact not so much in terms of playing time, but in all the intangibles. When it comes to D.R.E.A.M., Okoronkwo checks off all the boxes. As a junior last year, Okoronkwo was cut by the team, but she came back this year and was determined to make a difference in any way.

“She is the epitome of what our culture and program aspires to be,” Stewart said. “She doesn’t play a lot of minutes, but she came in the summer and never missed a workout. She’s got a positive attitude, and this team just loves her. I love the fight she has in her, and she’s a great kid, something that every program needs. 

“She’s the biggest fan on the bench, and her game has gotten so much better that it doesn’t matter how many minutes she gets. She is absolutely selfless and all about the team, and that’s exactly the mindset we need to have for where this program is going and the identity we want to have. She gives 100 percent and is always smiling, and that’s what we want to be as a program.”

Sarah Arcelo, a freshman guard, has earned starts with her quick pace of play. Arcelo, who ran in the CIF State Cross Country Championships in late November, is also fast and quick on the court. Arcelo and Santiago work well together, as their play often produces points or a high-percentage shot. 

“Sarah is a little unorthodox in her movement, which makes her hard to guard,” Stewart said. “She does a good job of getting down the court and getting transition baskets. She understands how to play within the system, sees lanes that are open and hustles back on defense. She still has a lot to learn in terms of developing her shot, but she really adds a lot on both ends of the court.”

In addition to Arcelo, the Cougars have three other freshmen on the roster in Bella Falvey, Kaiya Stewart and Brooke Sabala. Stewart isn’t with the team full-time because she plays for a U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy team, which is her first priority. She’s a soccer player first and a basketball player second, but her skills on the hardwood are immense. 

“When she gets in, she’s an absolute difference-maker,” Stewart said. “Her IQ, understanding the court and decision making are one of the strongest on the team. She’s probably the fastest baseline-to-baseline player we have on the team, along with probably having the best lateral footwork in terms of playing defense. She’ll get a bunch of rebounds and is a very disciplined player.”

Sabala disrupts teams with her presence defensively. She plays in system on the defensive end and does a lot of the little things that don’t show up in the box score. 

“Brooke is really a defensive gnat, and I mean that in the most complimentary way,” Stewart said. “She’s one of our smallest players, but her speed and size benefit her because she’s able to get into a ball-handler and bother them with pressure.”

Stewart said Falvey has struggled a bit after suffering an arm injury last year, but she’s confident the freshman guard will continue to grow in confidence and in her game going forward. 

“She’ll be an impact player for us in the future,” Stewart said. “Our freshmen are really disciplined, and they’ve been playing together since the fifth grade. You can really see those kids have an understanding of the game.”

The two sophomores on the team—Emily Baumgartner and Hanna Smith—have really grown this season from a confidence and on-court standpoint. Baumgartner was on the floor when the team made the big run against Santa Cruz, which is no surprise considering she had a solid freshman season. A pair of juniors, Emma Horn and Jacqui Bluford, have made an impact on the team in different ways. 

Both play physical and provide a strong presence on the boards, and Bluford knows her role and does it well. She also runs the team’s strength-and-conditioning program. Bluford’s dad has a personal training business, and Bluford has taken an interest in that. 

“Jacqui wants to go into that,” Stewart said. “We try to lift three to four times a week, and she has done a great job running the program. And Emma comes to work everyday, and a lot of times she provides comic relief, which keeps the atmosphere loose and fun. She’s pretty funny even though she doesn’t realize she’s being funny. That’s what you love about her.”

Stewart credits her coaching staff of varsity assistants Jaime Hall and Mike Baumgartner along with junior varsity head coach Jim Falvey and junior varsity assistant Enrique Diaz for being instrumental in shaping the direction and culture of the program. 

“I have a phenomenal staff that understands the big picture of the game, where it’s not just about the scoreboard,” Stewart said. “But it’s how do we empower these young women into greater confidence on and off the court. I’m excited about what’s to come as these current players develop and grow.”

The coaching staff keeps track of 50-50 balls, deflections and hustle points—and with good reason. 

“We keep track of everything that has nothing to do with points scored,” Stewart said. “We want to celebrate all these kids and their contributions to the team, and that’s why it’s important to focus on the fundamentals, coming together as a team, and discipline. We want to be a D.R.E.A.M. team.” 

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