Mario Newton knows a special team and program when he sees one. It wasn’t too long ago that Rancho Cotate women’s basketball program was dead. How dead?
The Cougars didn’t win league games in 2012-13 or 2013-14. They won only one league game in 2014-15, two league games in 2015-16 and four in 2016-17, then in 2017-18 they were 6-8. Now going into the 2020-21 season, the Cougars have won 20 straight regular season league games, have a combined record of 45-15 and just made it further than any Rancho basketball team ever. It’s why even in defeat, Newton is a happy man.
“I told the girls, I’m proud of them, for the fact we got to the semifinals,” Newton said. “We made it further than any team has in Rancho history. We’ve never been to the semifinals of the NCS before so I was really happy with that and the fact they just kept grinding it out and coach LaBlue didn’t sub until there was 30 seconds left in the game because I think he knew the potential that could happen. I’m really proud of them.”
The Cougars have nothing to be ashamed of, even in a 53-34 defeat. With this run they’ve established themselves as one of the top teams in the North Bay. Not only that, they did this while losing six seniors from last seasons 25-5 team and having season ending injuries this year.
This game will be known as the what if game. What if the Cougars would have shot the ball normally? What if they wouldn’t have had depleted depth because of injuries? This game was simply a case of poor shooting.
It’s unclear why the Cougars struggled shooting, but Newton says that was the key. The Cougars missed at least 10 free throws, 5 layups and had about 4 three pointers hit halfway down and roll out. This game wasn’t to be for the Cougars. Even with the bad shooting night, Newton felt his team played well, but just didn’t make enough shots.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Newton said. “We know Montgomery’s good, we played them earlier in the season and they beat us by 16 or 17 points. They’re long, aggressive, play good defense, play very well as a team and they have good coaching over there.”
“We didn’t shoot very well tonight, we missed tons of free throws, layups, collectively as a team we didn’t shoot as well as we normally do and that makes a big difference.”
Newton credited the length of the Vikings early in the game for affecting the Cougars’ shots, but he also said it could have been the magnitude getting to the girls. Montgomery gymnasium was packed Tuesday night, something the Cougars aren’t used too. This could have played a factor in the poor shooting. Though the Vikings made more shots, they didn’t have a particularly good night either.
Though it was more of an ugly grind it out win for the Vikings, they showed why they are one of the top teams in the North Coast Section and playing in their fourth straight NCS Championship game. The Vikings have size, speed and skill at all positions, coupled with a star in Ashleigh Barr and a motion offense consisting of high screen and rolls which gave the Cougars trouble early on.
Newton touched on how the Cougars’ communication wasn’t great in the first quarter. It was clear during timeouts that Newton was stressing communication because the Cougars weren’t matching up like they normally would. Once the Cougars got a read on the Vikings’ offense, the girls did a tremendous job defending them, forcing 17 turnovers, which is way more than the Vikings’ average but unfortunately weren’t able to take advantage of them. The turnovers were something Monty’s coach lamented after the game.
Probably the turning point in the night was the buzzer beater by Lauren Schank. The Cougars had been battling all half and cut the lead to 9 points while Barr was on the bench only to have Schank pull up and splash from Stephen Curry range at the buzzer which gave the Vikings momentum going into halftime.
This game showed the difference between an established program like the Vikings and a team still building like the Cougars. The Cougars have come so far since 2012-13 and there’s no reason for them not to continue improving. Keyonee Neal will be a junior next season, Teiya Fronda, Tatum Maytorena and Reese Rasmussen will be seniors, Naomi Duport will be a junior, Mitra MacFerren will be a senior and Newton is really high on the prospects the Cougars have coming in.
“I also coach 8th grade CYO and we have some strong girls coming in,” Newton said. “Our JV team has some height down there, we have some height on the freshman team, we have some height coming in from the eighth grade team.”
“But losing Leslie at point guard is a lot to lose, but our goal is to build a program. We have a solid foundation for next year, but the year after might be a drop off.
It’s true, the Cougars have their cornerstone player, in Neal, for two more seasons and the next step is building a foundation around her. Also, the Cougars weakness this season was size, so adding some height will help the Cougars compete against the bigger teams in the NCS.
Neal again led the Cougars in scoring with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while senior Leslie Bejaran finished up her Cougars career with 8 points and 7 rebounds. Jada Buckley, Duport and Fronda had four points to wrap up their respective seasons and career in Buckley’s case.
Though the result wasn’t what they wanted the Cougars should hold their heads up high because just like the football team, they made history and should be applauded for it.
“We told these girls coming in here, look on paper we’re not expected to win, we have nothing to lose, we just go out and have fun and play ball,” Newton said.