By Nick Giannandrea
The most successful California community college women's basketball team from last season returns intact.
College of the Sequoias welcomes back all 10 players who suited up for a team that went 8-0 during the delayed and abbreviated 2020-2021 season played last spring, including "super" sophomores Serena Ybarra (Coalinga High), Hailee Edwards (Ridgeview-Bakersfield), Neli Diaz (McFarland), Sapphire Jones (Hanford) and Kuda Ceesay (Atlanta).
The Giants has the best record in the state among the eight college's that brought back women's basketball once restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic eased.
Sequoias also has players experienced in sophomore transfer Ayon Carter (Oakland) and freshmen in Nikola Hudson (Florida), Ella Thompson (Mammoth), Alana Roberts (Sierra Pacific-Hanford) and Celeste Lewis (Sierra Pacific), who played for coach Ray Alvarado during the "Covid" season.
"All those retuners are pretty good," Alvarado said. "We're really excited about this group and excited about the season. Hopefully we can stay healthy and do well."
Sequoias is set to open what is expected to be a complete championship season at 5 p.m. Nov. 5 against San Jose at the San Joaquin Delta Tournament in Stockton.
Alvarado said in terms of leadership and experience, the Giants will be led by Ybarra, who is in her third year as a major contributor to the program.
The 5-foot-7 guard helped Sequoias go 19-10 and reach the Northern California Regional playoffs as a freshman in 2019-2020. Ybarra did a little bit of everything for the Giants during the spring 2021 season, averaging 6.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.6 steals per game.
Edwards, Diaz, Jones and Ceesay also are in their third seasons with the Giants. The "Covid" spring season did not count against a student-athlete's athletic eligibility.
Edwards, a 5-9 forward, is expected to gain clearance to resume playing after a shoulder injury forced her to miss most of the past two seasons. She played in two games during the spring, averaging 5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals.
Diaz, a 5-7 guard, averaged 7.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists; Jones, a 5-9 forward, contributed 10.2 points 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2.3 steals; while Ceesay, a 6-3 post, averaged 2.3 rebounds and 0.9 blocks for the Giants.
Carter, a 5-7 guard, averaged 7.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.8 steals a game for the Giants in the spring after transferring from Delta, where she played as a freshman.
Sequoias also will feature four experienced freshmen in Lewis, Roberts, Hudson and Thompson.
Lewis, a 5-10 guard, is the Giants' top returning scorer after averaging 17.0 points a game last season. She also contributed 4.9 assists, 3.5 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.
Roberts, a 5-11 forward, also made an immediate impact for Sequoias last season, averaging a team second-best 14.4 points, a team-leading 10.5 rebounds along with 1.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.8 blocks.
Hudson, a 5-7 guard who originally hails from Australia, returns after delivering 9.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.2 steals last season, while Thompson, a 6-1 post, gave the Giants 4.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game.
Alvarado rounded out his 14-player roster with four true freshmen recruits: Taylor Roth (Sanger), Tiana Holland (Washington Union-Easton), Hannah Kearnan (Redwood) and Noura Aboutaleb (Charlotte, N.C.).
Roth is a 5-8 guard/forward combo, Holland is a 5-7 guard, Kearnan is a 5-8 forward and Aboutaleb is a 5-8 forward who started her career at New Mexico Junior College.
"I think the freshmen will all give us some minutes," Alvarado said. "The good thing for us is there is no rush for them to have an immediate impact because we have an abundance of experience. But I think they will step in and contribute right away. I like their athleticism."
Alvarado said all his returning players have been through collectively over the past year-plus -- from the unknown of whether they would get to play, to going through stringent Covid protocols to practice and play after college administration made the decision to bring athletics back -- has made this a close-knit group.
"At the end of each season, we do an exit process with each student-athlete," Alvarado said. "And this past April when we got done, almost to a person, they all echoed the same thing: How close this team was, their chemistry and how they respected each other. That's why they all wanted to come back because they had such a positive experience."
With as experienced a roster as anyone in the state, Sequoias will be out to reach the Northern California Regional playoffs for the ninth straight championship season. Not that 12th-year coach Alvarado would change his expectations even without 10 returning players.
"Our goal is always the same: To play highly competitive basketball, and have a gradual peak in the season," Alvarado said. "We want to win the conference, get to the playoffs and have a shot to compete for the state title."
The Giants plan to build their postseason resume against a schedule loaded with state heavyweights such as Pasadena, Riverside, Fresno City and Merced, schools that all participated in the state playoffs in 2019-2020. Sequoias will also play in tournaments and crossovers hosted by state powers Delta, Moorpark and San Francisco, as well as hosting its own Gilcrest Tournament from Dec. 2-4.
"This is one of our toughest schedules," Alvarado said. "And it's by design. We're trying to get them ready. I'm anxious to see how they respond to the big games. Win or lose, I want to see what their competitive level is going to be."
Sequoias makes its home debut at 5 p.m. Nov. 16 against Lassen. Admission to Porter Field House is $5 and facial coverings are required while inside the gym.
The Giants open Central Valley Conference play at 5 p.m. Jan. 5 at Taft. Their first conference home game is at 7 p.m. Jan. 12 against reigning CVC champion Merced.
"The players are working hard," Alvarado said. "They have bought into our culture. The older ones have welcomed the freshmen and the freshmen respect the sophomores. They are working as a unit. I'm excited for the season."