A lot of athletic leagues wind up with co-champions. But how many can claim two outright champions?
That's the deal in North Bay League girls basketball this year. Casa Grande, last year's Sonoma County League champ, has come to the NBL via realignment (along with Windsor), joining NBL title defender Maria Carrillo and six other hungry schools.
With teams like Montgomery and Santa Rosa returning potent rosters, and with last year's lower finishers expecting marked improvement, this could be the most competitive NBL season in a long time.
"The potential this year for anyone beating anyone else on any given night is a reality now more than ever," Montgomery coach Steve Bell said.
Of course, if NBL teams take turns beating on one another as expected, their records may all suffer a bit. That could be an issue when it comes time for playoff berths and seeding, unless the North Coast Section recognizes the overall strength of this league.
"That's probably the downside of it," Santa Rosa coach Steve Chisholm said. "But the upside is it's gonna be much stronger, more competitive and balanced, which will bode well for teams going into NCS. There will not be an easy night or a time when you can afford to take a night off. There will be a lot of games going down to the wire in the last minutes, close games, and that's what you want for the playoffs."
Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the NBL:
CASA GRANDE GAUCHOS
Last year's record: 31-3 overall, 12-0 SCL
Overview: Casa Grande may be new to the NBL, but the Gauchos aren't likely to sneak up on anybody — not after their dynamic 2011-12 season, when they won 31 games and played in the CIF NorCal playoffs. Casa has 10 players back from that team, including all-SCL picks Lyndsey Murnin, Brooke Santander and Dayna Dolcini, but will struggle to replace league co-MVPs Gretchen Harrigan and Stephanie Sack (coach Dan Sack's daughter). The Gauchos don't have a lot of height, but they are deep, quick to the ball and hardened by big games.
Player to watch: Murnin was Casa Grande's shooting guard until Stephanie Sack graduated. Now she moves to the point, and so far she looks equal to the job. "She's leading us in scoring, but at the same time she's trying to fill Steph's role as a playmaker first," Dan Sack said. "She can distribute but still be a scoring threat if needed. She's doing a terrific job."
MARIA CARRILLO PUMAS
Last year's record: 24-6 overall, 13-1 NBL
Overview: Chris Walton takes over as Maria Carrillo's third coach in as many seasons. Yet through all the upheaval, the Pumas have hardly skipped a beat on the court, winning a league title last year. Walton has a strong nucleus with returning starters Aaliyah Sowards and Mikaela Francis; his goal early on is to make sure his girls play with passion. When the Pumas came out flat in a preseason game against St. Vincent, he sat down all five starters for an extended stretch. "My focus is not what's transpired here in the past," Walton said. "We have a new outlook for this season, especially my seniors. I want to send them out with some positive stuff."