OAKHURST — The YHS Girls Basketball team went undefeated in North Sequoia League play for the second straight year, winning their third straight league championship and finishing the regular season 24-4 overall. Ranked #4 in the entire Central Section by the Fresno Bee (behind only Clovis West, Clovis North and San Joaquin Memorial), they enter the postseason as the #2 seed in the Central Section Division II playoffs.
Most schools in Division II have 1,500 or more students, while YHS has a current enrollment of 650. The Badgers find themselves in Division II because playoff brackets are not determined by school size, but rather by past competitiveness. Blate’s long history of winning — 4 CIF titles in Division III, runner-up 3 times including once in D-II, and 15 of the last 17 NSL titles — keeps his teams playing much bigger schools come playoff time.
This year’s team is led by five seniors who have taken the Badgers to the Division II semi-finals each of the last two years, only to lose to Bakersfield High (enrollment 2900) in 2017 and Mission Oak of Tulare (enrollment 1500) last year. The seniors — Grace Fries, Lily Graffigna, Linnea Leinau, Sophia McGoldrick and Hailey Rich — are hoping to advance past the semis this year. They have a first round bye, and then on Thursday, Feb. 14 play Shafter at home at 6 p.m.. Should they win, they will then host a D-II semi-final at YHS on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
For Blate, the key to this year’s success is “having four players who have been starters for three years.”
Weather, however, has lately been an obstacle.
“Our last league game was cancelled due to icy road conditions. With the first round bye, that means two weeks between games by the time we play our first playoff game. We have to work hard to stay sharp,” Blate emphasizes.
The team’s strength lies in having so many different players who can dominate their positions on a given night. The scoring is balanced — they have 5 of the top 15 scorers in the NSL (Fries, junior Courtney Hart, McGoldrick, Graffigna and Rich), and 4 of the top 6 assist leaders (Graffigna, Leinau, Fries and McGoldrick). They can slow the game down and rely on their size to score, or get out and run.
And yet, for all the ways they can score, their defense may be even better—they play a stingy zone and dominate the boards, causing most opponents to fold by the end of the third quarter. he Badgers have 3 of the top 6 rebounders in the NSL (Hart, McGoldrick, and Rich), and two of the top four shot blockers (McGoldrick and Hart).
The five seniors are only half the story for the Badgers. Juniors Hart and Keylee Andersen, and sophomores Jenna Kurz, Brittney Allen and Lauren Bernardi, help comprise one of Blate’s deepest teams ever. At 6’1” Hart is becoming a force inside, and Kurz is poised to replace Fries next year as the Badgers’ best outside shooter. But next year is not on the Badgers’ minds at the moment — reaching, and winning, this year’s D-II Valley finals is their ambitious goal.
— YHS Correspondent