By Ray Hamill — The Crusaders will tip off the Little 4 as heavy favorites once again in girls basketball on Friday night, but that doesn’t mean anyone at St. Bernard’s is taking anything for granted.
“Nothing’s a given,” third-year head coach Mark Gardner said. “We’re going to have to go out and compete every night. I don’t expect anything less than the best effort from Hoopa, Ferndale and South Fork every game.”
The reality, however, is that it will take a huge upset to unseat the Crusaders as league champions.
They have not just dominated the Little 4 Conference in recent years, they have dominated in the North Coast Section.
Last year, the Crusaders reached the final four in state play in their bracket after claiming a fourth section championship in five years.
They have not lost a Little 4 game since the middle of February in 2014, an almost five-year span that includes 31 straight wins.
Whether or not this year’s Crusaders can continue that legacy remains to be seen, but an 11-4 start to the season would suggest they’re well up to the task.
And it all starts with the senior leadership, most notably Mackenzie Finck, Josie Peterson, Marayah Tomlinson and Shelby Jordan.
Finck, in particular, is enjoying an outstanding season and brings a steady hand to the lineup.
“She’s so important to what we do,” Gardner said. “Her leadership is something all the girls and the coaches rely on.
“You can see the difference when she’s on the court.”
Likewise with Tomlinson, whom the coach describes as the most tenacious defensive player in the county, and Peterson, who is arguably as consistent an all-around athlete as anyone else in the county and a force in the paint for an under-sized Crusaders team.
“I don’t think anyone plays harder than her,” Gardner said of Tomlinson, adding that Peterson “anchors us inside.”
Just as importantly, Peterson plays disciplined ball and rarely gets in foul trouble despite her physical presence.
Jordan, a third-year varsity player, also brings a physical dimension to the lineup.
“If Marayah is one of the most tenacious defenders in the county, I think Shelby could be second,” the head coach said. “And she’s got good ball skills as well.”
All in all, it’s a formidable lineup for Gardner, and one that will cause even more problems for the rest of the Little 4 with the addition this year of standout freshman Saulele Tanuvasa.
The newcomer, who also was the Little 4 MVP in volleyball this past fall, has had a huge immediate impact with the team, averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
“She has transitioned to high school basketball very well,” the head coach said. “And her game is not just athletic, but talented to go with the athleticism. She’s really a skillful basketball player.”
And Tanavasu is only going to get better.
This year’s roster also features juniors Fa’apisa Fonoti and Sabrina Gardner.
“She’s probably been our biggest surprise,” the head coach said of Fonoti. “This season her game is so good. Her footwork is so good. She’s been really solid this year.”
Sabrina Gardner also gives the Crusaders a valuable presence inside, and has been playing very solid defensively.
“She’s always helping her team’s defense in the post,” head coach and father Mark said.
Sophomore Emma Wilson also is enjoying an outstanding season. She is, according to her coach, the future at point guard, and plays with “great defensive intensity.”
Rounding out a deep and strong squad are seniors Verissa Moon and Amelia Francis and junior Faith Blanchard.
Moon, a transfer from Hoopa, has begun to settle in nicely at SB, and has shown signs of some outstanding play as she adjusts, while Francis and Blanchard are the ideal teammates, according to their coach.
“The sort of kid every coach wants,” Mark Gardner said. “Shows up on time, works hard and gives her all when she’s on the court.”
More importantly, they make their teammates better.
This year Gardner is joined by assist coaches Cliff Hart and Shylo Wantt.
“They have been invaluable,” the head coach said. “We get great coaching experience from those two, and a great knowledge of the game. I’m really fortunate to have them.”