Lured By Academic Programs, A Dynamic Group Of Young Players Has Elk Grove’s Laguna Creek Rising At A Rapid Rate •
There’s a lot of loose talk about student-athletes and the importance of academics. But for most elite athletes, and most elite programs, sports come first, second and very often, third through fifth as well. That may not be the case at Laguna Creek High.
At Laguna Creek — one of the most surprising emerging powers in Northern California girls basketball — academics was a key factor in turning a 3-24 team into a 22-1 team in just two short years.
Zoe Tillery, a sophomore co-captain (there are no seniors on the team, and just one junior), had always been around basketball and plays for JBS, the premier club team in the Sacramento area. However, her decision to go to Laguna Creek was based on the International Baccalaureate program, a high-powered high school curriculum that only a select few can qualify for. She had no idea if any other incoming freshmen were basketball players.
Ahrray Young, another sophomore JBS player, was considering such schools at St. Mary’s-Stockton, but “academics mattered a lot to me,” so she opted for Laguna Creek with its wide variety of specialized programs. Programs focused on green energy, sports management and fashion, just to name a few.
“I saw the record and I saw the seniors (for the 3-24 team),” she said before also admitting that she had no idea who would be her basketball teammates.
But when she went to the first team gathering in the summer before her freshman year, “I was surprised and excited.”
The same was true for the other young players, and even for coach Cody Norman.
“I’m not an AAU guy,” he said, and he hadn’t even seen a club game until last fall, so he didn’t know about Tillery or Young. “All I knew was that there were rumblings that we had a good class coming in.”
Then all the freshmen showed up for the first summer league practice.
“I was like ‘Wow’,” Norman said. “Right away, I knew we had something special.”
And Norman’s background made that recognition easy. His first year coaching girls — after many years on the boys side — he coached Courtney Range, a future Pac-12 player at Cal, and now a professional. That Manteca team went 21-7 before losing to a powerhouse Vanden group in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, so Norman knew what top-shelf talent looked like.
He also knew he had found where he wanted to be. “I used to think ‘there’s no way in the world I would coach girls’,” he said. “But after two days, I said to myself ‘Why have I not been doing this?’ I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”
But Norman’s path to the Laguna Creek job wasn’t without detours. After the birth of his first child, he stepped away from coaching but eventually he got a teaching job at Laguna Creek, and took over the girls team — only to step away again when his second child arrived. Then he came back to a senior-laden team with not much talent and endured a 3-24 season in 2016-17.
But next, seemingly out of nowhere, came this wondrous freshman class. Tillery and Young averaged 17.1 and 14.7 points a game, respectively, that first year. It’s not a surprise they started, but classmates Eva Young (9.3 ppg and 7.7 rebounds per game), Sieli Manupule (7.7 ppg and 6.7 rpg), Alicia Enriquez (7.1 ppg) and Kaitlyn Jarros (6.1 ppg) also forced their way into the rotation. It created an all-freshmen starting five.
Starting five freshmen in a competitive league often can lead to headaches for coaches. Laguna Creek seemed to fair relatively fine. The Cardinals went 26-4, losing twice to always-strong McClatchy-Sacramento and to talent-laden Sacramento High in the SJS playoffs.
Hard as it is to believe, this year Norman found himself with an even younger roster. Ten of his 11 players are freshmen and sophomores, and the only upperclassman, a junior, doesn’t log very many minutes.
Oh, and Laguna Creek’s only loss was in early December, to Northern California’s best team, Archbishop Mitty-San Jose.
“It showed the girls what the reality of what a top-rated, nationally ranked team looks like,” Norman said. “It was a lesson. If you want to be a top program, you have to be Mitty.”
But the road to Mitty-like success must be paved with important wins, victories that instill confidence and belief. Laguna Creek has had several this year.
“Our win over McClatchy,” said Tillery of what she sees as the moment the team really started to understand how good it was.
McClatchy had beaten Laguna Creek 75-29 and 67-49 in the 2018-19 season. This time though, the upstarts pulled out a 59-55 win in front of a big home crowd.
“We all stepped forward in the West Coast Jamboree,” Young said of the team’s Pearl Division championship after Christmas. “We played really good teams, and we were really nervous.”
One of those really good teams was Vanden, which Norman knew well. “Vanden is a program,” said Norman, “not just a good team. That was a signature win for me.”
Then came the championship game against Abbotsford of Canada with Tillery on the bench due to concussion concerns.
“To see how good we were without one of our starters was big,” Young said of the overtime win, which was followed by league wins over Monterey Trail-Elk Grove and McClatchy.
Of course there’s a sense that the best is yet to come for Laguna Creek. Still, Norman has been around too long to fall into that trap.
“I’ve told the kids ‘Don’t think this happens every year — nothing is for certain. Why not do it this year?’.”
Why not indeed? The talent is there, the confidence is there, and so is the camaraderie essential to a deep postseason run.
“We have a great bond,” Young said. “The chemistry shows on the court.”
Of course it’s impossible to predict what the record will show at the end of the season, with No. 7-ranked Antelope and star Jzaniya Harriel looming in the playoffs. However, the 22-1 record through January would make a stumble or two down the stretch pretty much academic as far as measuring success is concerned.
Of course if it weren’t for that word “academic,” there would be a lot less success to try to measure.