After both Turlock and Pitman completed successful girls basketball seasons last year which saw each team advance to the playoffs, the varsity squads experienced very different starts to league play recently when COVID-19 put one program’s season on hold.
The Pride had played three games already when they met the Bulldogs on the court for the first time this season on Saturday. The game was Turlock’s first, however, after a positive COVID test at the junior varsity level forced the team into quarantine back on April 18.
According to Turlock varsity head coach Salinda Padilla, the two levels had been practicing together right before the positive test due to a lack of players, which had made in-team scrimmages impossible. With just under two weeks of practice prior to the quarantine and another two weeks with no basketball activity whatsoever, the Bulldogs fell to their crosstown rivals — and defending Central California Athletic League champions — 66-34 over the weekend.
“We’re just trying to make the most of this year for the seniors to at least get some playing time, and for the new kids to learn the system because it’s definitely different at varsity,” Padilla said, noting that the Bulldogs have two sophomores who skipped the JV level to play on varsity this season. “Without them we would’ve been down to nine players. They're learning a lot and that's what we want; we’re trying to get them ready for next year.”
Pitman head coach Dustin Curtiss has the same goals in mind for his championship-caliber team, which he believes would have made a run at another league title this year thanks in part to eight returners on the team from last season — a group which includes star seniors like Emily Hanham, a three-year starter, reigning league MVP Jessica Smith and Malaikah Kashif, who received First Team All-League honors last season.
The team is 3-1 on the season so far, falling to Gregori High by just three points in their first game but since defeating Modesto Christian and Modesto High in addition to the Bulldogs. After not shooting a basketball with their team in a year, Curtiss is happy with his team’s hot start.
“Obviously, it’s a tough situation having no preseason or anything like that and going directly into league games. We really have two goals in mind: try to get the seniors as much time as possible and try to give them their lost year back, and then try to develop our younger players.”
In addition to Smith, Hanham and Kashif, the latter of whom has averaged 18 points per game this season, other players to watch on the Pride include junior Abbie DiGrazia, a three-year starter, and junior Aleya Higa who is averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds per game.
After uncertainty as to whether or not the basketball season would even take place this school year, Curtiss is grateful for the opportunity to play.
“In January I didn’t think we were going to play at all, so the fact that they’re actually getting to play is a positive,” Curtiss said. “I really appreciate all those people who fought for sports to come back, even if it is a modified schedule.”
With only two returners from last season’s starting five on this year’s team which also features four sophomores, Padilla was happy to see the young Bulldog squad make an adjustment during Saturday’s game against the Pride, going from scoring just nine points in the first half to 25 in the second.
Players to watch for Turlock include 6-foot-2 center Alexis Cox and senior power forward Morgan Mitts, who will both play at Merced College next year, as well as returning sophomore Emilie Snyder, who played on varsity as a freshman last season.
The performance after two weeks off gives her an optimistic outlook for the rest of the season, she said, and she’s looking forward to the team’s next game against their rivals.
“That just shows you the jitters we had to get out,” Padilla said. “I know next time we play them they’ll put on a full court press, and we’ll be ready.”
The Pride and Bulldogs both play Wednesday night at 8 p.m., with Pitman visiting Enochs High and Turlock hosting Downey High.