It’s going to be a defensive battle when Menlo and Castilleja throw down in Saturday’s Central Coast Section Division IV girls’ basketball final at Independence High School.
No. 2-seed Menlo (17-11) is the reigning champion that prides itself on composure, while in turn being able to absolutely fluster opponents. No. 5-seed Castilleja (20-9) can wreak havoc with the full-court press and always has the potential to dominate a game with its superstar starting five.
The difference between the two West Bay Athletic League powerhouses is where they were a year ago. The Knights are looking for back-to-back titles after demolishing the CCS field last season. Paced by then-senior Drew Edelman, the Knights outscored their opponents 183-125 through three games in 2013. The closest score of the three was the semifinal matchup with Scotts Valley, which Menlo won handily, 58-46.
Castilleja, on the other hand, experienced a dreadful season in 2012-13. After starting the campaign 3-1, the Gators were dealt a devastating blow when star senior Lauren Rantz was lost to injury, after which they barely won another game. Castilleja finished the year 4-21 overall, including a winless 0-10 record in the WBAL Foothill Division.
After dropping to the lower Skyline Division this season, Gators head coach Gary Plummer knew his team was playing for all the marbles in an effort to win league — the only way they could punch their ticket to the postseason. Castilleja went on to post a perfect 10-0 record in league play.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Plummer said. “Last year we had a rough year. ... Our goal from the beginning of the season was to go undefeated in league and to get to this CCS championship game. Now we’ve accomplished our goal and we’ve got one more goal: to go out and try to win it.”
Despite being the bracket’s lower seed, Castilleja, on paper, looks to be a clear favorite.
Gators center Yasmeen Afifi is a force to be reckoned with in the paint. The 6-3 junior has pulled down over 300 rebounds through 29 games this season. And while Afifi averages 13.9 points per game, she isn’t even the team’s best scorer. That distinction belongs to co-captain Paige Vermeer, who has netted a 14.4 scoring average. Sophomore Ellie Chen has been quiet through the CCS playoffs, but the 5-6 guard rocked 23 points in Castilleja’s WBAL playoff opener against Harker, while averaging 10.6 points per game on the year.
So perhaps its fitting that the red-and-black color scheme of Castilleja’s uniforms somewhat resembles that of the Chicago Bulls because, like the classic Bulls teams of the ‘90s, the Gators feature a dominant superstar surrounded by several other superstar-caliber talents.
But Menlo has some superstar synthesis as well. With sophomore Hannah Paye averaging 13.1 points per game and a 30-percent mark from beyond the 3-point arc, the Knights have a shooter who is a viable threat to take over any game. But the matchup to watch will be in the post with Menlo’s sophomore tandem Olivia Pellarin and McKenzie Duffner dueling with Afifi. And if the Knights can work the boards as a team as they have all season, they might just have a chance of persevering in the post matchup. Keep in mind, five Menlo players have surpassed the 100-rebound plateau this season.
For the Knights’ offense, it is all about playing crisp and clean. They absolutely flustered King’s Academy in Tuesday’s CCS semifinal, causing 24 turnovers en route to a 60-46 win. Menlo’s upbeat style of play has a tendency to have an adverse effect on the offense though. And the only chance the Knights have of hanging with Castilleja is to play a clean game.
“I think if we keep it clean and we keep it consistent, we’ll be good about matching up with [Castilleja],” Menlo senior Donya Dehnad said. “I mean ‘clean’ as in keeping our offense clean, make good passes, minimize our turnovers, minimize points off turnovers. That’s gotten us into a lot of trouble this season and I think if we do that we’ll be successful.”
Menlo’s ultimate goal is to return the repeat epidemic to the CCS Division IV bracket. Until the last two seasons — when Notre Dame-Belmont won the crown in 2011 and Soquel won it in 2012 — repeats spanned from the turn of the century, with Santa Cruz (2009 and ’10 champs), Valley Christian (’07 and ’08), Sacred Heart Cathedral (’05 and ’06), Notre Dame-Salinas (’03 and ’04), and Sacred Heart Prep (’99, ’00, ’01, and ’02).
Tip-off for Saturday’s championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m.