By Ray Hamill — New Fortuna girls basketball head coach Tom Chapman is expecting a battle in the Big 5 this year and knows he will have his hands full matching wits against the other programs.
The Huskies, who officially tip off the new season when then host Fort Bragg on Saturday, are the defending conference champions, having won the Big 5 in the winter of 2019/20, which was the last time a league champion was crowned.
Including an unbeaten four-game run in the Big 5 in the spring, the Huskies have lost just one of their last 12 games against conference opposition over the past two seasons.
This year, however, the Fortuna girls feature several new faces and have just one player remaining from the historic championship team that ended a four-decade drought.
“It’s a big change,” said Chapman, who replaces Scott Betts as head coach. “The girls have a new head coach and it’s a little bit of an adjustment for them, and I’m adjusting to them.
“We’re still trying to figure who we are as a team.”
Chapman says he is expecting a battle in the Big 5, especially with the quality of coaching around the league.
“My take is there are some excellent head coaches (in the Big 5), so I think that on any given night anybody is beatable,” he said.
The new head coach got to see his players in action earlier this week in the alumni game, which was a competitive affair and went down to the wire.
Alumni player Juliana Ortega-Miranda nailed a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining to break a late deadlock and give her team a slender victory.
“It was a good night for us and the program,” Chapman said. “We had a large and loud crowd and a good alumni team that played tough.”
One Fortuna player that big things are expected out of this year is senior forward Gabby Stephens, who is the only returning player from the championship team of two years ago.
“I’m really looking to her to be that X factor for us,” Chapman said. “And to jump into the fray and take her game to the next level.”
Stephens is one of three core seniors expected to play a big role for the team, along with returning all-league first-team selection Teal Mostovoy and returning all-league honorable mention Isobel Crosswhite.
Mostovoy will play point guard and Crosswhite will play center.
Juniors Kylee Fennell and Ashley Tully are both also expected to play a major role for the team.
“Kylee really stands out to me as just a basketball player,” the head coach said. “She’s just a go-getter and the kind of player that every team needs, that kid who dives for the ball, takes charges and does the gritty things.”
Tully, meanwhile, is one of the hardest workers on the team and has put in a lot of time on the practice court and is now seeing the reward for her work.
“More than anything else, they are just great student athletes,” Chapman said of the squad. “They’re great kids and great students, the entire team. So they’ve been a pleasure to coach.”
Chapman also believes close neighbors Ferndale could be in line for a big season.
“I would not be surprised if they make a deep run in the North Coast Section,” he said. “They have the talent.”