The Rancho Cotate Cougars took home the North Bay League Championship pennant Tues., Feb. 5 against the El Molino Lions, 58-43.
It’s the girls’ first championship pennant in 39 years. They won the last one way back in 1980 where it has hung in the Rancho Cotate gymnasium ever since. The old pennant is a weather worn, yellowed banner these days, but with the new theater, arts and gym building due to open later this season, it makes this year the perfect year to hang another.
“I’m very proud of the girls. I’m happy that they got to have it presented here at home,” Cougar coach, Mario Newton, said. “To go undefeated in league like that...well, it’s a good reward to the girls for all their hard work and dedication. They practice two hours a day seven days a week, unless they’ve got games.”
Undefeated in league is an unexpected title to apply to the Cougars. Last year the girls went 6-8 and stumbled in the North Bay League playoffs against Cardinal Newman. It must have stung to come so far and fall short, but failure can teach a team better than success ever could. They took last years’ lessons to heart and used everything they learned this year against the El Molino Lions.
The game started slow. While Rancho took the lead right from the tip off, their play lacked the ferocity that is their trademark. Cougar coach, Mario Newton, cycled through his deep bench of 14 players, looking for a spark to get of his team moving.
Newton finally found it in Teiya Fronda.
Fronda is small for a basketball player, standing at an even five feet—but she’s fast. Really fast. A diminutive stature can also come in handy in evading notice from her much larger opponents, which is exactly what happened when a tug over the ball under the Lions ‘basket ended in the Cougars’ favor.
Cougar Keyonee Neal went to the sidelines to bring the ball back into play, but the Lions’ defensive pattern left few openings. The referee counted down the seconds until the turnover. Then Fronda saw her chance. She dove into the weaving bodies, waving her hand above her head with a shout. Neal passed her the ball. The Lions looked for where it had gone, but Fronda had already gone for the shot.
It was good.
“We’re all really close,” Fronda said. “[I was feeling down] when the refs called some fouls that weren’t actually fouls—but my two best friends, Keyonee Neal and Mitra Mcferren, they always keep my head up. Even if it’s down they push it up.”
But the Cougars didn’t get it all their own way. The Lions staged a brief comeback in the third quarter.
It started when the Lions’ Ellie Roan intercepted a pass to the Cougars’ Natalia De La Cruz. The Cougars realized their mistake quickly and compensated, but not fast enough to stop Roan. She rushed the basket and the Cougars lagging far behind, went for an unopposed layup. It bounced off the backboard and fell into the net.
Roan’s charge sparked new fire in the Lions. They followed it up with a three three-point basket by Alex Foszcz and a layup from Grace Anderson.
The Cougars responded in force. Cougar Makenna Menton-Porter slapped down a pass between two Lions. The ball rolled across the court to settle at the feet of Cougar Jessica Phillips. Phillips scooped up the ball, dodging between two Lions that moved to block her. She passed to Cougar Keyonee Neal.
Neal spun around the probing hands of the Lion defenders. Each step brought her closer to the basket. She leapt. The ball sailed from her outstretched fingers and swished through the net.
“Rancho is a very talented team. They’re 10-0 in league. They’re hard to defend. They’ve got a lot of weapons and they’re big and on the board,” Lion coach, Keith Nordby, said. “I told my team after the game that the adjustments we made at halftime really improved. When you lose the first two games by 30 points then you go fishing, trying to find anything that works.”
Next up for the Cougars is the North Coast Section Playoffs. Their first game is Tues. Feb. 12.