By Nick Giannandrea
The players have mostly changed, but the goals remain the same for College of the Sequoias' women's basketball team.
The predominantly freshmen Giants (11-5) will begin pursuit of a fourth straight Central Valley Conference championship when they host Taft (2-13) at 5 p.m. Jan. 8 at Porter Field House.
COS, which is ranked No. 18 in the state by the California Community College Women's Basketball Coaches Association, will then host Fresno City (8-7) at 3 p.m. Jan. 11 and travel to No. 10 Merced (11-5) at 5 p.m. Jan. 15.
"Our expectations are still to shoot for the conference (title) and get a high seed for the playoffs," said Alvarado, whose team has reached the state's Elite Eight in four of the past five seasons. "I think the players are up for the challenge. We've got some big games right out of the gate. We're ready to go."
Merced, which shared the CVC title with COS in each of the past two seasons, has played six state-ranked opponents this season and is the only team to defeat top-ranked Moorpark (57-54 on Dec. 5.)
The Blue Devils are led by sophomore guard Malaya Kendrick, who averages 19 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Fresno was ranked No. 20 by the CCCWBCA before dropping out of the latest poll released Dec. 30. The Rams, who were only 6-6 in CVC play last season, have been bolsters by a trio of high-scoring freshmen in Raven Riley (15.4 points per game), Taylor Correa (10.7) and Le'Ajanae Kinley (9.9).
The CVC also features Reedley (5-11), West Hills-Lemoore (4-12) and Porterville (2-14).
"There will be some parity in the conference," Alvarado said. "A lot of teams are getting better, and we're hoping to continue our success from the past. I'm sure each game will be tough.
"Merced has been pretty consistent over the last couple of years. They have a really good point guard coming back and good depth on their bench. They will be a challenge. And Fresno will be a challenge, too. The question is can we do what we're supposed to do? If we do, I like our chances. We've had a good preseason to learn some things."
The Giants play 10 of their 11 freshmen regularly (Hailee Edwards of Ridgeview is a medical redshirt,) while six of them -- Serena Ybarra (Coalinga), Aubrey Nunes (El Diamante), McKenna Hsiung (Bakersfield), Felicia Ramirez (Caruthers), Sapphire Jones (Hanford) and Savannah Surfus (Redwood) -- have started at least one game this season.
Ramirez (11.2 points per game), Nunes (10.3), Ybarra (8.2), Jones (7.5) and Hsiung (6.6) are all among COS' leading scorers, along with Reed (11.1) and Brumfield (6.1).
"That's been the biggest hurdle, learning how to play at a high level with inexperienced players," Alvarado said. "But they are giving a great effort and working really hard. The effort has been good. They want to continue our winning ways. Now it's time to grow up and make each game count."
The Giants haven't played a game since Dec. 21 when they lost 67-61 to No. 15 Butte. Alvarado gave his players 10 straight days off to get away and refresh before returning to practice last week.
"I think it's good to have some downtime," Alvarado said. "They are coming along. We've come back and had some good practices. They seem to be communicating better. I like where they are headed. They are playing better together and seem to be growing up. That's good to see. Our goal is to play our best at the end of the season."