Michele Massari knew she wouldnt have the services this season of all five of her Division I scholarship seniors.
The Sacramento High School girls basketball coach had to accept the fact she wouldnt have Chaya Durr, a 2013 All-Metro first-team selection who suffered a torn ACL during the summer, for the season. But when two more seniors were lost to injuries, Massari had to go with young players to help carry what should have been a veteran-heavy team. She has counted on freshman Courtsey Clark and sophomores Aliceah Hernandez and Alana Matthews not only to play, but to play well.
The Dragons were not the only team this season forced to depend on underclassmen. But because of the growing number of girls players as young as fifth-graders playing on local Amateur Athletic Unionteams, area high schools are reaping the benefits. Its becoming as common for freshman and sophomores to start on varsity teams as it is for juniors and seniors.
In girls basketball, I dont think people care about how old they are, said McClatchy coach Jessica Kunisaki. There is not a big emphasis on, Oh, shes a freshman. If youre good enough, youll play varsity.
Massari has seen the influx of young players in the area, from her spring-summer AAU program called Cal Sparks to her Sac High varsity team, which won its eighth consecutive Metropolitan Conference title Tuesday night with a 55-49 victory over McClatchy.
If they are good, theyre getting on top (AAU) teams early and able to transition to varsity quicker, Massari said.
Hernandez, a 5-foot-9 guard, is averaging 14 points, and Clark, a 5-9 guard, averages 10 points and nearly eight steals. Those two players, along with Matthews, complement D-I-bound seniors Ayanna Edwards, Simone Sheppard and Najah Queenland entering the Dragons defense of their Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship.
McClatchy may be the youngest team in the section playoffs, starting a freshman and two sophomores. But Kunisaki sensed by early December she had a veteran team.
Lions sophomore center Gigi Garcia has been impressive with her post-up moves and shooting abilities, and freshman guard Jordan Cruz averages 10 points. With just one senior on this seasons roster, the Lions expect to be a section D-I title contender for the next few years at least.
Coaches point to the areas 2010 senior class led by Sara James (Oak Ridge/Stanford), Ariel Thomas (McClatchy/Oregon) and Brit tany Shine (Sacramento/Cal) as the catalyst for the number of AAU players entering high school ready to play. Those former standout players were versatile four-year starters, groomed in AAU to face top competition in practice and games.
I believe that (senior) class had a lot of influence, said Antelope coach Sean Chambers, who oversees his own AAU program, Just Believe Sports (JBS) and has mentored a string of young players on skill development.
After a 3-4 start, Antelope won 13 of its final 16 regular-season games, thanks to strong play from sophomore AJ Baylon (15.9 points) and freshman Nadia Johnson (19.1) to win the programs first Capital Athletic League title.
Bradshaw Christian is a favorite to repeat as D-IV section champion despite not having any seniors. Freshman Jolene Delaney and sophomore Ramia Griffin have complemented juniors Erika Bean and Jordyn Bell.
The rise in talent also has caused a rise in area players landing college scholarships in recent years. College recruiters begin scouting players during AAU spring-summer games, grading players before they even reach high school.
McClatchys Garcia and Cruz have already received interest from Pacific-12 Conference and Mountain West Conference schools, and a big reason is their performance on the AAU level.
Currently, there are 31 players from the Sacramento region on 20 teams from the five NCAA Division I womens basketball conferences that include at least one California school.
The talent and scholarship numbers are only expected to increase, as well as overall play of area high school teams.
I guarantee that with these young players, the teams in the area are only going to get better, Chambers said. With the high school coaches we have, its unbelievable. Now it incorporates more players that play at a high level at a young age.