The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
The old coaching adage of “control what you can control” has been put to use more in the last 18 months since the emergence of COVID-19. The slogan became a way for athletes and coaches to stay sane during the last year and a half of tumult.
But now that basketball teams are back on the court, the College of San Mateo and Skyline College women’s basketball teams have had ultimate control — over the opposition. The two programs have opened the season with a combined record of 19-1 — Skyline is at 11-1, while CSM checks in with a perfect 8-0 mark.
“We’re playing well,” said Skyline head coach Chris Watters, who is in his ninth season with the Trojans. “We’re going at it with all freshmen and we’re showing a lot of growth.”
It’s not by choice Watters is playing such a freshman-heavy squad. His two sophomores, post player Nicole Brunicardi (Burlingame) and guard Jerlene Parangan (Aragon) were lost early in the season. Brunicardi broke her wrist in the season opener and, a few games later, Parangan went down for the year with a knee injury.
Brunicardi is expected back in time for the Coast Conference season, which begins next month. Until then, Watters will rely heavily on his first-year players. Considering the Trojans opened the season with eight straight wins before falling to De Anza Dec. 3, things couldn’t have gone much better for the Trojans, who have since won two in row heading into Thursday’s game against East Los Angeles College.
“We’ve had to change everything on the fly when Brunicardi went down,” Watters said. “It forced the freshmen to take on roles that we didn’t foresee them taking on so quickly. … They kind of got thrown into the fire. There is no one to defer to. They’ve had to step up.”
One of those freshmen who has stepped up big time is guard Malia Latu (Menlo-Atherton). A three-year varsity starter at M-A, Latu opted out of the 2021 spring season with the Bears. Now that she’s back on the court at Skyline, she appears to be making up for lost time. Her 21.4 points scoring average is seventh-best in the state and she is one of only 10 players to be averaging 20 points or more for the season.
But it’s not just Latu’s scoring, she’s doing a little bit of everything. She is among the team leaders in rebounds with 7.4 per game. She also dishes out nearly 5 assists per game and defensively is averaging 4 steals.
“[Latu] has, maybe, the best work ethic of any player we’ve had at Skyline. … She’s been outstanding. Nothing has fazed her. … When we watched her move and play (at M-A), we saw her as a high-level player and we feel like this process has kind of unlocked some of that. It was always there,” Watters said. “She’s a player. She has a Division I scholarship offer already and has played only 11 games and we think there are more going to come in.”
Latu is far from a one-player show. Lala Lautaimi (Aragon), a 5-10 post player, is scoring 15 points per game and grabbing 7.5 rebounds. Tatiana Newsome (St. Ignatius) is averaging 8.4 points per game, while another former Aragon standout, Angie Olive is averaging 5 points and just under 5 boards per game.
“I feel like everyone on the roster has had a game where they’ve been that player who put us over the top,” Watters said.
If there is anyone who can sympathize with Watters’ injury issues, it’s his counterpart at CSM, Michelle Warner. Warner and her Bulldogs have been beset with injuries seemingly every season and a lack of players on the roster have made negotiating those injuries more difficult.
This season, so far, Warner not only have depth, but its been relatively healthy and those two factors have contributed to an 8-0 start, heading into games Friday and Saturday.
“That’s why we’ve been doing so well,” Warner said.
Unlike Skyline’s roster of first-year players, the Bulldogs are blessed this season with all but one player who is in her second or third season with the team and who stuck together through the pandemic and now reaping the rewards of the work they put during the lockdown and lockout.
“It’s kind of nice to have so many third-year players,” said Warner, who is her 22nd season leading the Bulldogs. “So many girls could have transferred, but they didn’t want to finish during the pandemic.”
Because the team has been together so long, Warner believes it’s given the players the time to pick up on her philosophy and strategy when it comes to the games, which has only made them better players.
“My main philosophy is to get the highest percentage shot on every possession. … That starts on defense,” Warner said. “This is the first group in a long time who has picked up our man-defense concepts (so thoroughly).
“I have seven, all-state academic players, 3.5 GPA or higher. That’s phenomenal.”
Like Skyline, CSM has a main, go-to weapon in post player Chiara Brown, out of American High School in Fremont, who is averaging nearly 18 points per game.
But she also has a strong supporting cast. Brittney Lewis (James Logan-Union City) is averaging 11 points per game, Erica Mendiola (Carlmont) chips in with nearly 8 points per game. Meanwhile, Lia Lilomaiava, who injured her knee during her senior 2018-19 season at Aragon, is developing into a force in the post.
All of this is led by point guard Coral Yu (Summit Shasta). A 5-6 post player in high school, she came to CSM where Warner envisioned her becoming a shooting guard. But when Ava Augustin went down with injury during the 2019-20 season, Yu stepped into the point guard role and has since made the position hers.
“She was willing to do what she had to do to get better,” Warner said. “She is, by far, our leader. Everyone follows her. She’s always directing, always encouraging. .. She’s definitely a key to our success.”
Another part of the success both CSM and Skyline are experiencing is the fact that they are building their rosters from some of the most successful programs on the Peninsula.
“That does help a lot (having players from winning high school programs),” Watters said. “I feel there are lot of good (high school) coaches [on the Peninsula] and they have players … who come into college knowing how to play. … It is a benefit to our program.”