Pleasant Grove girls dig in for one last run at a league title and beyond.
By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor
With just two seniors on the roster, the Pleasant Grove girls basketball might be expected to be slowing down and rebuilding this season.
That is until one learns about those two seniors.
Captains Dejza James and Avonna Lee play fast and hard with no plans to stop until they have led a group of underclassmen to heights the program has become accustomed to in their four years on the Elk Grove campus.
“I think we’re going to go far,” James said of her expectations for this year’s team. “We are putting in the work and trying to get the team excited about the season because I think it could be special.”
Pleasant Grove shared the Delta River League title in 2010 and won it outright in 2012, setting up a unique opportunity for James and Lee as four-year varsity players at the 7-year-old school.
“We are definitely trying to get another league title,” coach James McKeever said of the team’s goals. “I told Avonna and Dejza that Marissa Wimbley (a 2012 graduate) got two (league) titles, but they have a chance to get three.”
That opportunity is not lost on the senior pair as they have taken ownership of this year’s team. Though both were captains as juniors, James and Lee have accepted larger leadership roles to share their experience and knowledge with the next wave of Eagles.
“Being a leader is a lot of work, but it’s exciting for me,” James said. “Avonna is the one who is vocal and yells out where everyone needs to be and what they need to do. I am more of the goofy good cop with positive and fun encouragement.”
The pair play off each other in large part to their familiarity with one another.
James and Lee have been friends since third grade and teammates for almost as long. Both were brought up to the varsity team during their freshman season and have grown up together in the gym, establishing a strong bond and almost telepathic communication.
“All we have to do is give a look or just glance at one another, and we know what we are going to do,” James said of their unspoken communication. “I think that gives us an advantage on the court.”
That closeness also created unique motivational tactics to be employed between them — tactics which can be misinterpreted by coaches and teammates the first time they experience it. McKeever admits that he was taken aback a bit when the pair “got into it,” but now understands the tactics and appreciates the results.
“We get feisty with each other, but we do it to make each other better,” Lee said. “We know how to get the other mad to play our best.”
James’ and Lee’s best translated to a 22-10 overall record in 2011-12, and a 9-1 mark in league play. The Eagles advanced to the SJS Division I semifinals and qualified for the NorCal playoffs where they fell in the second round. In both cases, Pleasant Grove lost to the eventual champion (Kennedy-Sacramento won the section title and Berkeley won NorCal).
James and Lee are both outstanding all-around talents with a full complement of tools on both ends of the floor. James, who is an inch taller than Lee at 6-feet, can run the point and handle the offensive and defensive responsibilities in the post. She averaged 13 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, and 2 blocks per game last year.
Lee, is the team’s top shooting guard, and averaged 14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals per game as a junior.
“Dejza came back after the summer with the mentality that no one can stop her,” McKeever said of James’ continued progression as a top player. “She has a great command with the ball and she really worked on her jump shot.”
“Avonna is a pure shooter,” he said. “She can light it up any night from the outside and has the ability to score in the low post as well.”
While their contributions can be counted on, the success of the Eagles is likely to rest on the development of the new influx of talent. Junior Aaliyah Pena, at 6-foot-1, will patrol the paint from her post position, while guards Kim Schmelz, a sophomore, and Brittany Nguyen, a freshman, will be called upon to handle the ball and score in support of James and Lee.
The new talent will be tested early as McKeever set up another challenging nonleague schedule for his team which includes top talent at the Oak Ridge Shootout and West Coast Jamboree in December before the Eagles face state champion Berkeley in early January.
“We go all out,” McKeever said of the gauntlet schedule. “We set it up to prepare for our league schedule and the playoffs. The girls got a little taste of the NorCals last year, and we want to be ready for that level of competition.”
The captains agree that early challenges are necessary to prepare for the postseason in addition to gauge where improvement is needed to reach the playoffs.
“I am honestly a little nervous to see how we do against some of the teams we are playing (in nonleague action and tournaments), but I am excited, too,” Lee said. “It will be good to see what those teams have and where our team is at, and to see what we need to improve before we face teams like that in league and the playoffs.”
Pleasant Grove will also be testing a more up-tempo offense in the early going. McKeever and new assistant Jasmine Cannady, a recent Sacramento State graduate who played for the Hornets, have emphasized conditioning in practice to open things up in an attempt to score more easy baskets and possibly wear down opponents.
With less size and experience, any advantage will be employed by the Eagles to repeat as DRL champions — a tough task with traditional powers like Oak Ridge, St. Francis and rising Sheldon posing threats to Pleasant Grove’s reign.
James, who recently signed with Arizona to continue her basketball career in the Pac-12, is excited about her future, but is focused on making the most of the present alongside Lee for one last hurrah. The pair believe they can keep the program rolling.
“We have the talent,” James said of the goal to win a league title and advance far into the postseason. “We just need the young players to realize their talent and gain the confidence for it to come out.”
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