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Emphasis on accountability has Aliso Niguel girls basketball on upward trend
It’s Friday afternoon and members of the Aliso Niguel girls basketball team are running sprints from sideline to sideline.
The night before, the Wolverines were sloppy, committing a high number of turnovers against one of their weaker league opponents. That lack of focus required a come-from-behind effort to keep the team’s South Coast League record perfect. The Wolverines breathed a collective sigh of relief after beating Laguna Hills by one point.
Not one of the girls gripes, groans or complains about the consequences. They knew it was coming. No matter how seasoned the athlete, some lessons still need to be taught the hard way.
“One of the biggest differences is they’re holding themselves accountable, and that’s huge,” Wolverines coach Lindsey Sundin said. “They’re high school kids, but that’s going to carry them on forever.”
Players admit that, after signature wins over defending South Coast League champion San Clemente and last year’s runner-up Tesoro, maybe they got a bit ahead of themselves.
Thursday’s narrow triumph over Laguna Hills is certainly reminder enough that, despite the great strides the program has made in less than one year, there’s always room for improvement.
The Wolverines are 3-0 in league play and 12-5 overall on the season in Sundin’s second campaign as coach. Aliso Niguel is chasing its first league title since 2003. Should the Wolverines achieve their goal, it would be just the third league title in program history.
And what a feat it would be considering most of the players were on a group that went 1-7 in the same league last year.
“Coming off last season … our mindset was that we were going to improve,” sophomore Madelyn Brauer said. “We all brought that energy into practice, and that’s been a help this season.”
Last year’s group consisted of seven freshmen, six of whom stuck around for their sophomore season. The program has seen its numbers grow, which allowed Sundin to bring back a freshman team.
She says another good group of eighth-graders could make the program even better next year.
Accountability is just one of the factors leading to the success of this year’s squad. Sundin drove the fundamentals hard in the offseason, noting that the team couldn’t move on to the next step until it had mastered the previous one.
An emphasis on boxing out and rebounding has been key. Their goal, defensively, has been to limit offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities.
But rebounding has done more for the Wolverines than just keeping opponents at bay. They’ve used those rebounds as a method for transition offense, making for quick, easy buckets on the other end of the floor.
“We conditioned a lot more so it would be easier for us to get up and down the court during games,” said Emma Reed, a senior captain.
Added Brauer: “We really had time to mature heading into this season. Now that we have a year of experience under our belt, we know what we’re headed for.”
Led by Reed and Brauer, the team is more vocal this year than it was last winter, when youth dominated the varsity roster.
Knowing now what Sundin is looking for in practice and on the court, players are starting to settle into leadership roles. Though the players said very little during sprint drills Friday, Brauer could be heard encouraging teammates to keep pushing.
“It’s like night and day,” Sundin said. “We worked our butts off during the spring and summer, and it shows. We went from being nobody to having a chance at going 8-0. It would be huge if we could pull that off.”
The communication is key, both in games and in practices. The team is playing unified and has developed a mentality of winning.
Part of that improvement can be credited to the coach, who came to Aliso Niguel after assisting and coaching junior varsity at San Clemente from 2011 to 2014.
During Sundin’s time with the Tritons, the varsity team won the South Coast League in both years she assisted varsity. Sundin has used that mentality in building Aliso Niguel’s program back up, leaving a senior class that she had coached for years.
That class earned San Clemente a split of the league title with Tesoro last season and showed little mercy on the young Aliso Niguel squad – which the Wolverines used for motivation heading into this season.
When Sundin arrived at Aliso Niguel, she joked that she would buy the team ice cream for scoring 20 points in a game. Less than two seasons later, now she wants to put her girls to the test against the county’s best squads, including Mater Dei.
In October, the Wolverines received a gift when junior forward Charlotte Vurgun reached out to Sundin to ask if she could join the varsity program. A member of San Clemente’s league title-winning team last year, Vurgun has brought a winning attitude with her to Aliso Niguel, averaging 11.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game.
“When she was at San Clemente, the mentality was that they weren’t going to lose league,” Brauer said. “She’s brought that same mindset here.”
Now with a year of experience, depth has been developed around Vurgun. Of the 14 rostered players, 12 average more than a basket per game and seven average more than 5 points per contest.
That depth was shown against San Clemente in the team’s league opener Jan. 7, when nine girls scored in a 57-31 win.
“Last year, we were four or six players deep,” Sundin said. “This year, everyone contributes off the bench despite the fact that it’s mostly the same team.”
The win was especially sweet given the Tritons trounced Aliso Niguel when the two teams met last season.
The Wolverines followed it up with a big win at home against Tesoro.
“The first two teams, we knew they were good and we were well-prepared for those games,” Brauer said.
However, last Thursday’s win was a reminder that nothing is definite.
“We can’t get too cocky,” Reed said. “We just need to prepare the same way we’ve prepared for every game.”
There’s still plenty of work to be done, but you won’t hear the Wolverines complaining about it.
“There’s a hunger in their eyes,” Sundin said. “They want to leave a spot on that banner.”
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