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Fast start has CHS girls basketball hoping for winning season

Claremont High School girls basketball has survived a rough few years, but that may be changing this year with a new coach and a revamped approach.

The girls have not won a league game since 2014, so they were motivated to make changes. One of those changes was to replace head coach Darryl Kennedy.

Hiring a new girls coach was a clear priority for former Wolfpack football coach and brand new Athletic Director Mike Collins. Similar to the way he ran the CHS football program, he was looking for a seasoned professional, but with the highest integrity.

By late summer, CHS settled on Michael James, a veteran of both girls and boys basketball, who is a full time physical education teacher at Walnut High School.

A native of West Covina, coach James played football in high school and became interested in coaching basketball when he was asked to fill in early on in his teaching career.

“I kind of accidentally fell into being a basketball coach,” Coach James said. “During my first year teaching [at St. Marks Lutheran], the principal said ‘Hey we need someone to coach basketball.’

“I said ‘Really? The boys?’ And he said ‘No, girls.’ I really did not have any experience coaching basketball, and it didn’t go very well, but over the years I started going to camps, and hanging out at high schools. I just kind of learned on the fly.”

To say he learned how to coach is an understatement. At Diamond Ranch between 2006 and 2014, he took the Panthers to the semifinals of the CIF tournament six times.

“We are thrilled and fortunate to have him,” Mr. Collins said. “He has been doing an incredible job. He is a strong professional who knows how to run a program.”

In spite of their 0-10 league record last year, the girls did have a number of close games, including two four-point losses to Bonita. That small gap clearly shows that Claremont indeed has some talent, which Coach James hopes to tap.

In order to turn things around, Coach James plans to work on changing the team’s mentality.

“I saw them play a couple times this summer and I thought they had some nice [elements],” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting them together. Basically, it is just hard work. If you put in the work, you will start winning games. It’s a slow process but it’s going to pay off.”

The girls are off to a good start, with a 4-0 record, including a lopsided 57-13 victory on Tuesday over St. Lucy’s in the opening round of the 23rd annual Wolfpack Classic Girls Basketball Tournament.

Senior Katelyn Maloof was the Pack’s top scorer with 17 points, sinking an impressive five three-pointers, plus two free throws. Fellow senior Lauren Steffen was not far behind with 12 points. Steffen was also key on defense, pulling in crucial rebounds and helping to force turnovers.

In the second round of the tournament Claremont pulled out a thrilling, 51-49 victory over the West Covina Bulldogs, with Maloof sinking a five-foot floater at the buzzer for the game winner. Steffen was again a key contributor, with 14 points and 14 rebounds. The Wolfpack played Don Lugo in the semi-finals after press time on Thursday.

Overall, the girls seemed more cohesive than last year, even though the team still needs to work on shooting, and reducing turnovers. In addition, the Pack was playing without one of their top players, Camille Troncone, who is injured.

“Those are the things [shooting and turnovers] we talked about at halftime,” Coach James said. “We were doing some things that were just sloppy on defense—being out of position, making slow, lazy passes. Those are the things that when we play against good teams, they will make you pay for.

“I inherited a team that was senior heavy, but the younger players can play, so I feel pretty good about where we are and where we are headed,” he added. “We have established certain rules on the court, so it is just a matter of getting out and executing.”

The Pack is at a tournament in San Dimas next week. Palomares League play kicks off  January 9 with a home game against Glendora.

—Steven Felschundneff

steven@claremont-courier.com