Casa girls win first VVAL tournament title

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Vintage’s Lady Crushers won the first Vine Valley Athletic League pennant, but Casa Grande’s young Lady Gauchos argued Friday night that the Napa-based team might not be the best in the league.

Casa Grande outplayed Vintage most of the evening, and then rallied at the end for a 41-37 win and the title in the first VVAL post-season tournament. The victory not only gave Casa the tournament trophy, but also marked its second win over Vintage in three games the league leaders have played this season.

While Casa has leaned heavily on its younger players, especially sophomores Trinity Merwin, Sophia Gardea and Ashley Casper all season, in its soul-satisfying win Friday night, it was senior Samantha Dedrickson who stepped up big time.

The 5-foot, 11-inch senior’s major contribution to Casa Grande’s 18-9 season has been as a dominant rebounder, shock blocker and inside defender. On Friday night, she morphed into a shooter, and boy did she shoot, dropping home 5-of-9 3-point attempts for 15 points. When she wasn’t shooting from her sweet spot just to the left of the free-throw circle, she found time to grab six rebounds and block three shots.

“I don’t shoot that much,” Dedrickson noted. “Emma (Reese) is usually our shooter. After I hit the second three, I began to feel confident.”

After playing twice previously in league, the teams know each other well, so Casa coach Dan Sack devised a strategy that called for outside shooter Reese to be used as a decoy, leaving Dedrickson open. She didn’t fail.

Reese hit just two 3-pointers, but they were huge, coming early in the third period after Vintage had moved ahead, 19-18. The guard’s back-to-back connections put Casa in front, 24-21, and swung momentum back to the Lady Gauchos.

Both Merwin and Gardea played like seasoned veterans in the pressure-laden game.

Gardea ran the show, handling and distributing the ball in the face of Vintage’s vaunted pressure defense. Merwin took the ball to the hoop, finishing with nine crucial points.

Both acknowledged that they were a bit apprehensive playing in a game they wanted so badly to win.

“I was nervous,” admitted Gardea. “I really wanted to beat them.”

“This really was a team effort,” noted Sack. “To hold a team that good to under 40 points is an accomplishment. This was one of our best defensive efforts of the year.”

In contrast to most of the season when he rotated his entire roster into the game in the first half, Sack stuck with his best players for the entire game against Vintage.

And, their best effort was needed.

Casa Grande established the game trend early, forcing Vintage into nine turnovers in the opening period. The Lady Crushers unofficially had 24 in the game.

Casa Grande had just three in the opening quarter and 14 for the game. The Lady Gauchos’ early problem was that they couldn’t put the ball into the net, getting just three shots to fall. Two were 3-pointers by Dedrickson that gave Casa an 8-3 lead by the end of Round 1.

After their bad beginning, the Lady Crushers found the handle on the basketball and began to work inside, turning the game into a tense tussle the rest of the way.

Casper beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer to keep the Lady Gauchos in front, 18-14, at the halftime intermission.

Led by dynamic guard Nicole Gleason, the Lady Crushers completed a three-quarter chase of the Lady Gauchos late in the third period to finally lead, 29-28, going into the fourth quarter.

That last period was a wild emotional scramble with Casa Grande going in front to stay at 36-35 on a 3-point connection by the confident Dedrickson with just over a minute to play.

A pair of errant passes cost Vintage crucial time to the point where the Lady Crushers were forced to commit a series of four fouls that finally put Merwin on the line where she calmly netted two free throws to put the game out of reach.

Alyssa Andrews led Vintage with 11 points with Gleason adding nine.

As the Lady Gauchos celebrated, Sack paid tribute to his team.

“I am very proud of these girls,” he said. “They improved more from the start of the season to the finish than any team I’ve ever coached.”

Semifinal win

To reach the championship game, Casa Grande turned back a furious fourth-period rally by visiting Napa, 56-53, on Wednesday.

It was the second victory in three nights over Napa for the Lady Gauchos.

Although a quick lead by the physical Gauchos brought a similar tone to the Monday victory over Napa, this one wound up being much more difficult.

The Gauchos grabbed a commanding 17-8 advantage after the first period, led by the hustling Merwin. She took advantage of a stifling Casa full-court pressure defense to drive to the hoop for six points while dishing out a key assist.

Shayla Dunker, who doubled in the evening with another solid pre-game rendition of the national anthem, came into the game early in the first period, and she made a quick impact with two baskets close in. Dunker wound up with a good all-around first half with six points and two rebounds in temporarily taking Dedrickson’s spot.

Dedrickson had to exit the game with a leg bruise, but she returned for regular duty in the second half after the Gauchos improved their margin to 33-21 at intermission. She also kicked in offensively with two long triples from the corner of the Grizzly defense.

Napa began to kick things up a notch in the second half, spearheaded by the return of senior guard Jane Mcloughlin. On the injury list since an early tournament at Piner, Mcloughlin was a dynamo down the stretch with three steals and 12 points. She also came away with four loose balls, and Napa was almost able to come all the way back by outscoring the Lady Gauchos, 21-13, in the final stanza. Most of the points by Napa came from getting behind the Gaucho press.

The Grizzlies had one final attempt to knot the contest up with an out-of-bounds possession with only one second on the clock. A quick inbounds pass and a 3-point try fell off the lip of the basket.

Merwin scored in every period to pace Casa Grande with 18 points. The top Gaucho scorer for the season, she kept her team in front with a variety of driving shots from both sides of the basket.

Point guard Gardea also turned in an outstanding game before fouling out late in the fourth stanza. She scored 14 points, with eight coming in the frantic fourth period.

A timely steal in the fourth quarter by freshman Cassie Llavarias helped the Gauchos hold off the Napa onslaught. Dependable ball distributor Jennifer Loya was a major contributor with five blocks on the inside.

Shooting guard Reese continued to pile up the 3-pointers with three shots from outside the arc for the Gauchos.

“Their double teaming bothered us late in the game,” said Sack. “We had to figure that they were going to do that because of a comeback in the previous game. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season, and Napa plays with great emotion. Gardea made the difference in the last period with her eight points.”

Sofia Brandon finished in double figures with 10 points for the Grizzlies (15-12), who finished in third place in the Vine Valley Athletic League.

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