ROAD TO CIF: Santa Barbara High overcomes struggles to gain basketball success

With only one senior in the starting five and its top scorer just a sophomore, the chance of Santa Barbara High’s girls basketball team advancing to a CIF Final seemed like a longshot at the beginning of the season.

Team Photo: Roberts Photography

The Team of the Month Series is sponsored by Sansum Clinic of Santa Barbara (Photo: Roberts Photography)

The Team of the Month Series spotlights great 
examples of teamwork in the local sports community  

But this group of players defied the odds. They had savvy and good chemistry, and they kept improving under the coaching of Andrew Butcher and his staff.

With all that going for them, the Dons earned a shot to play for a CIF championship. They’ll take on Lake Elsinore-Lakeside in the 3AA Division final on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Azusa Pacific University.

Presidio Sports is pleased to honor the Santa Barbara Dons as its first Team of the Month, a new regular content series that spotlights the great teams competing in the Santa Barbara area.

The Dons are 25-5 and the top-seeded school in the division while Lakeside (23-6) is the No. 2 seed. Both teams were knocked out of the semifinals last year.

Butcher, who’s been coaching the Santa Barbara girls basketball program for more than 30 years, last took a team to the finals in 1989. He said he had no expectations of reaching the finals with this group. But, he liked how the team kept getting better throughout the season.

“We talked with the team at about midway through the season that every team I’ve coached, and probably most teams, struggle,” he said. “When you’re doing poorly, you’re struggling to get mediocre. And when you’re doing well, you struggle to get terrific or great. So, we kind of kept struggling and getting better.”

The semifinal win over Yorba Linda was a prime example of that.

Sophomore Amber Melgoza, Santa Barbara’s leading scorer, who was coming off a 40-point game in the quarterfinals, was having a tough night scoring. Desirea Coleman stepped up and guided the team. The 5-7 point guard scored 20 points, had five steals and five assists and flustered Yorba Linda’s 6-2 Texas Tech-bound center in the post.

The Dons also got clutch play from freshman Kimberly Gebhardt. She hustled for rebounds and combined with Coleman to intercept passes in Yorba Linda’s effort to break Santa Barbara’s full-court press.

Sophomore Jada Howard and junior Jocelin Petatan played good defense and provided key contributions on offense.

Another key to the team’s success this season has been its bench. Senior Alyssa Cosio is a dangerous three-point shooter, senior Michaila Miller is a good rebounder and sophomore Liliana Ponce is a tough defender who brings energy when she enters the game.

Also on the roster for the CIF title run are Sophia Torres, Diana Escobar, Isbella Illescas, Xotchil Lopez, Deborah Throop, Alejandra Mejia, Valerie Jaimes and Wendy Hernandez.

While it’s a young team, Butcher said the players have played a lot of basketball and have a gained a good feel for the game.

“Fundamentals take you only so far,” he said. “I’ve had fundamentally sound teams that couldn’t beat anyone. Man, we could jump stop and we could pump fake, but we couldn’t make a decision. That’s invaluable.”

Butcher remembers talking to another coach about the importance of players being savvy on the court.

“I was once told by a coach that my team didn’t have any savvy,” Butcher said. “I said, ‘How do you teach that?’ He said, ‘You don’t.’ Then I said, ‘I’m going to have a long year, aren’t I?’ And he said: ‘A very long year.’”

Good chemistry is another key part of the Dons’ success.

“You know the saying, ‘Girls win when they’re happy and boys are happier when they win?‘ Butcher asked. “It’s so true.

“(The players) care about each other. These kids really respect each other and like each other.”

And, they’d like to bring home a CIF title.

The school will be selling game tickets in the athletic office on both Thursday and Friday until 4 p.m.