By Ray Hamill — The Arcata Tigers have found their groove at an opportune time.
After struggling to find consistency for much of the winter and failing to qualify for this year’s Dick Niclai Tournament, the Arcata girls’ season is still going strong as they prepare for next week’s state playoffs.
They began the second half of the season with seven losses in their first eight games after Christmas, but have quickly gotten back on track with five wins in eight games since then, including back-to-back North Coast Section road playoff victories at Fort Bragg and St. Bernard’s.
Regardless of the result, having reached the section semifinals they will now advance to next week’s NorCal tournament, with the brackets set to be announced on Sunday.
And the turnaround really began with a team meeting just before the section playoffs.
“We had a discussion just before the (NCS) seedings,” head coach Doug Oliveira said. “I actually asked them if they wanted to go on or whether they were done, and as a team they all wanted to play. I think it kind of got us re-focused.”
The Tigers did not play the week of the Niclai tournament and had 12 days between games before opening the section playoffs with a 54-46 win at Fort Bragg.
They followed that with a very impressive 53-50 win at St. Bernard’s, where they rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit.
But, according to Oliveira, a 76-70 win at Del Norte in the regular-season finale really got the players believing.
“That was probably more of a turning point more than anything,” the longtime head coach said. “And this past week, I feel we’ve had our best practices of the season.”
The improving play of some key players, such as Melanie Luh and Caroline Dieker, has also helped, as has a more balanced offense.
Luh and Dieker each scored a team-high 10 points in Wednesday’s semifinal, which saw nine different players score at least three points each.
The ever-consistent Nora Talty also had a good game and finished with eight points.
“That’s been another thing about playing well in the sections,” Oliveira said. “We’ve had contributions from everybody. Our scoring has been much more balanced.”
Trinity Hamm is another player who has stepped up her game while giving her teammates a much-needed spark with six quick points and some key rebounds in the come-from-behind win at St. Bernard’s, as well as another strong performance at Branson.
The Tigers started slowly against the Bulls and played a little intimidated, according to the coach, but they were able to rally late in each of the first two quarters to cut what had been a 10-point deficit to just four at the break.
But the Bulls began to take control in the second half.
“In the third quarter we really didn’t play well,” Oliveira said. “They changed their defense to a half-court trap and we turned the ball over way too many times, period. We didn’t handle their half-court pressure very well.”
The Tigers trailed by 13 heading into the final period but rallied once again to tie the game with about three minutes remaining.
The absence of Branson standout Hannah Golan, who missed time early in the fourth quarter because of foul trouble, helped the visitors, but when she returned she helped her team seal the win.
“She came back and she just took over the game,” Oliveira said of the senior star who finished with a game-high 38 points. “We just didn’t have an answer for her at the end of the game.”
Despite the loss, the Tigers remain alive in the playoffs and will find out their NorCal bracket and opponent on Sunday.
“My hope is we don’t get in a situation like the last time when we were seeded No. 13 in Division 2,” Oliveira said. “It’s really a crapshoot the way they do the state playoffs.”
Still, for now the Tigers are still going, while nine of the 12 H-DN girls and boys teams to make the Dick Niclai Tournament ahead of them are done for the year.
The lack of consistency by the team for much of the season was caused in part by injuries and sickness and the Tigers have had a full complement of players on hand for just one of 56 practices all season.
While Oliveira admits that’s something that has affected every team in the H-DN this winter, he also feels it’s probably hurt his team more than most.
But the Arcata girls are quickly putting that behind them as they get set to continue their season, and it all began with the team meeting a couple of weeks back.
“When the girls talked, it was pretty emphatic from our team that the seniors aren’t done yet,” the head coach said.
They’re still not.