If you have seen the Santa Barbara High girls basketball team in action this season, it would have been hard to miss Athena Saragoza.
The Dons’ prolific scorer is a threat to drop 30 points on a nightly basis — as she has done in four of the last five contests.
Some nights it looks effortless, other times, it requires a bit more work, but none of it comes without the junior guard’s dedication to the sport.
“I train with a trainer three times a week and if I’m not with a trainer, then I’m running or playing weights or just something. I always have to do something, because if you’re not doing anything, someone is going to get better than you,” Saragoza said.
Saragoza has been going to parks and shooting the ball around since she was a little girl. Her father played in high school and made a couple of appearances in some championship games.
“Every time I would go over to his house, we would just go to the park and shoot and he would dunk it – he’s really tall he’s like 6-4 – and that kind of sparked (my love) for basketball,” Saragoza said.
When she was in seventh grade, Saragoza started playing club basketball and within a year of playing, she dropped soccer altogether to focus on that sport, much to her dad’s delight.
“That’s his favorite sport. He always encourages me but never puts pressure on me and that year (in club basketball) really got me loving it a lot more and wanting to pursue it,” Saragoza said.
When she was in eighth grade, Saragoza recalled a particular tournament her team participated in located in Los Angeles.
“Our team was just playing really well together, and I could just see myself doing this more,” Saragoza said.
That’s one of the reasons Saragoza decided to attend Santa Barbara High. She said the team’s rich history is what drove her to want to attend as well as her love for head coach Andrew Butcher and assistant coach Carlina Gonzalez.
She also noted talented players like Amber Melgoza, who currently plays for the University of Washington, as individuals she looked up to during her time as a youth.
“It was kind of a no brainer to attend Santa Barbara,” Saragoza said.
Still, Saragoza didn’t have instant success upon arrival.
She did play in her freshman but said that season was more about getting settled in and getting used to the rigors of high school basketball
She said Cassandra Gordon and Alondra Jimenez, two seniors at the time, really took her under their wing and tried to show her how to be a better basketball player.
Gordon now plays college basketball at the University of Georgetown while Jimenez is still dominating the local scene as she is playing at Santa Barbara City College.
The next year, without Gordon or Jimenez, Saragoza said she struggled at the start.
“I couldn’t really find my place or my confidence,” Saragoza said.
That is until league play started.
Before the second half of her sophomore season, Saragoza was never a shooter. In fact, she was a forward who said, “a lot of my points came off of layups.”
But, something finally clicked. Her jump shot started falling and all of a sudden she became a much more versatile athlete.
“It’s definitely developed,” Saragoza said.
“I was not a shooter at all my freshman year and then in the second half of my sophomore season I definitely became more of a shooter and that carried into club season.”
And now, it continues carrying over into this season in which, for the year, Saragoza averages 24 points per game on a 44% shooting from the field and 37% from deep.
“This is the best I have ever shot, like ever,” Saragoza said with a laugh.
“I really don’t even know how to describe this feeling. I just try to shoot my shot and my teammates just keep supporting me and keep telling me to shoot and that makes it easier when you have that support.”
Being the team’s best option on most nights comes with it a lot of pressure to always produce.
“It’s cool that with our offense I could get a lot of open looks but my teammates know when I am hot they could keep giving me the ball but if I’m not shooting well, I try to drive and kick it out and just always try to help in other ways,” Saragoza said.
Yet, that pressure does not get to Saragoza to often.
Only three times this season has Saragoza been held to a shooting percentage under 40% and only once has she been held to single digits.
“I always just try to think about the next shot and the next shot because eventually, you are going to start sinking it. You aren’t going to miss every single time,” Saragoza said.
Saragoza said her teammate’s support is also what allows her to always have that “next-shot mentality.”
“Everybody has each other’s back really well. I don’t think one person stands out over, we all have each other’s back and that’s what helps us win games,” Saragoza said.
Her love for the sport was sparked by her father, but her continued passion is all hers. She hopes to play in college one day just like the girls she looked up too.
And, she knows that she will always have support in the stands from at least one special person in her life.
“My mom has never missed one high school game,” Saragoza said.
“She’s not the sporty type but she has learned a lot about the game and she’s a pro now.”
Although the Dons are just 6-7 to start the year, four of those losses have come by two points. And even with the slow start, Saragoza does not hesitate when asked how far she thinks her team could go this season.
“I honestly think we can make it to CIF and State,” Saragoza said.
“This team is that talented and we could do that for sure.”
Santa Barbara’s next game is at home against Buena at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 3.
Non-league play went pretty well for the Chargers. Dos Pueblos totaled a record of 10-4 and won two tournament titles, one at the Nordhoff Tournament and the other at the Bird Cage Classic.
The Chargers are led by junior guard Ashley Gerken who averages a team-best 10.7 points per contest. She also adds 2.3 steals per game, 2.3 assists per game and 3.5 rebounds per game.
“Ashley has played an important role ever since she was a freshman. The team relies on her outside shooting and tough defense,” DP coach Phil Sherman said.
DP also relies on the play of forward Mikayla Butzke. The senior averages 9.1 points per game as well as a team-best 7.5 board per contest.
Despite having some good upperclassmen to rely on, the Chargers are still a young team.
“We have five sophomores on the team who will play prominent roles this year. Even though we have three seniors this is still a very young team and we will have to get better each game,” Sherman said.
If DP had a solid non-league schedule, the Royals had an even better one. San Marcos is currently 14-2 and is coming off a win at the Arvin Holiday Tournament on Saturday. It is the program’s first tournament win in 10 years according to coach Aaron Solis.
“It’s all about getting ready for league because we know league is a whole different ball of wax,” Solis said.
Senior Ashley Day is someone the Royals rely on. Most recently, she had 15 points and 12 rebounds in San Marcos’s win over Kern Valley in the championship game at the Arvin Tournament. Day has made two all-tournament teams during non-league play.
Even when she doesn’t get all the stats, however, Solis said of Day, “everyone can tell that we need her on the floor to be successful.”
The Braves have had a tough non-league schedule due to a lot of injuries said coach Claudia Terrones, but they hope to be at full strength once Channel League play kicks off.
Lompoc currently owns a record of 4-8 and most recently competed at the Arvin Holiday Tournament as well. The team lost one game against Righetti and won another against Liberty.
Junior shooting guard Mya Mendoza is a key player for the Braves with her shooting ability while senior forward Kayla Taylor has the skill to take over games down low. In one of the Braves’ victories this season, Taylor produced 24 points and 12 rebounds.
Last season, the Pirates finished Channel League play in second place, but this year they will hope to accomplish much more.
So far this season, Santa Ynez is currently 6-11, but the team did win three games at the Arvin Holiday Tournament.
The Pirates will hope to rely on senior guard Malia Loos, who last year set the record for most three’s in a single season.
Defensively, the Pirates also have Grace Padilla, who was last season’s Channel League Defensive Player of the Year.
After starting the season just 1-3, Cabrillo has picked up the pace as of late, winning five of its next seven to currently be at 6-5. They are just three wins away from tying it’s total win mark of last season.
Last year, the Conquistadores finished in fourth place with a 5-5 Channel League mark.
Cabrillo is a more senior-laden team than most with six total, but two it will hope to rely on is forward Morgan McIntyre and Thea Reagan.
The Rams struggled to start the year, but the return of some key players have helped them get back on track right before Tri-Valley League play starts.
After dropping it’s first two contests of the season, Cate has won it’s last three to sit at 3-2, including a huge win over Dos Pueblos High.
A key reason for that is sophomore guard Meena Baher, who’s ability to shoot from deep has allowed the offense to flow better. The Rams also rely on senior Maya Blattberg and junior Lily Zanze.
“We had a good inside-outside game because we can make shots from the outside and Meena is just a bonus for us,” Cate coach Taylor Moore said.
The Cardinals have enjoyed a lot of success so far this season allowing them to capture a 10-3 record in non-league play.
“Our goal is to win league,” Bishop Diego coach Jeff Burich said.
In order for the Cardinals to accomplish that, they will need to rely on junior guard Eliot Redkey and senior forward Julia De La Cruz.
Redkey runs the team’s offense from the point guard position while De La Cruz is able to dominate both inside the paint and stretch the floor as she is capable of knocking down shots from three.
The Warriors currently sit at 3-5 to start the year and have had some fair share of struggles and success.
Carpinteria usually relies on the play of guard Hannia Hernandez, who can usually fill up the scoreboard from shots on the perimeter. Gabriella Graham and Gracie Verdugo are two other players that can fill up the stat sheet for the Warriors.