Empire prep small school girls' basketball has entered league play with very competitive races.
Storylines abound as the Empire's top teams aim for league titles and spots in the North Coast Section playoffs across the three small school divisions.
St. Vincent deep, talented
Returning five starters and most of last year's team, St. Vincent is the NCL II league favorite.
Two All-Empire picks, Ursyla Baumgarten and Grace Jennings, lead a team that also returns a trio of All-League players: Rebecca Dodele, Maddie Perry and Jacalyn Murphy.
"This would be the year where we can go for it," said St. Vincent coach Jim Fagundes.
An aggressive, confident team, St. Vincent can have a different leading scorer each game. The Mustangs are developing solid backups to provide the depth needed for an NCS Division 5 playoff run. St. Vincent has never won a girls section title.
Holding teams to 37 points a game, St. Vincent has been in every game against often very strong opponents.
St. Vincent bolstered nonleague scheduling to prepare for league play and the section playoffs. Larger schools included Archbishop Mitty and Redwood. St. Vincent also has played some top Bay Area teams in Division 5, including International, San Domenico and Urban.
Middletown seeks title
Coming off a strong run against a challenging nonleague schedule, Middletown is the early favorite in the NCL I.
Big and athletic, Middletown has the defense and rebounding to wear down opponents. With enough scoring to win consistently, Middletown has been beating teams by an average of 13 points a game. Leading the Mustangs is returning All-Empire selection Ashley Hart with solid scoring from Ashlyn Welton.
The loss of top post presence Allegra Macedo has hurt. Middletown hopes she can return toward season's end and help the Mustangs make an NCS Division 4 playoff push.
Middletown played a rugged nonleague schedule featuring mostly larger schools and trips out of the section. The goal is to prepare for a deep league and a very difficult NCS Division 4.
"You need to be ready to play at a high level," said Middletown coach Anthony Bazzano. "I feel confident that we're able to compete at a high level."
NCL I race
A handful of teams expect to challenge Middletown in the NCL I.
Cloverdale was tested by a typically difficult nonleague schedule and has opened league play with a pair of convincing wins. Back for the Eagles is All-Empire player Jazmin Orozco, a strong shooting guard. Also returning is All-League pick Angel Bernardi with point guard Kirstin Villacencio anchoring the offense.
A perennial power, Cloverdale is quick and finding more scoring.
"We should be right there in the league," said Cloverdale coach Rick Berry.
St. Helena is improving and edged Middletown in an early upset. All-Empire selection Zaina Depina leads the Saints.
Kelseyville and Willits are getting better. Willits is two-time defending league champion.