Two years ago, in the wake of a relatively nondescript 13-16 regular season that included a fifth place finish in the Avocado West League, the San Dieguito Academy girls’ basketball team re-centered and got on a roll that took it to the CIF Division IV championship game where the Mustangs knocked off Castle Park, 55-36. A program that had never won a single CIF contest was now a section champion.
This Wednesday, Coach Aubree Smithey’s SDA squad, 14-10 overall and runner-up in the Avocado East League, hosts West Hills (13-12) in the opening round of the CIF Division II playoffs as the No. 3 seed. Although it’s a different team with a transformed mindset, the 2018 title run still resonates deeply.
The Mustangs are a cumulative 36-18 since winning that initial banner and reached last February’s CIF Division III tournament final before falling to Mission Vista. For Smithey, her current hoopsters represent a new unit but much is the same as it was in 2018.
“When we won the championship, we had a lot of young, athletically talented kids who hadn’t figured it out yet but were able to make plays and get it done,” said Smithey. “We’ve moved up divisions and kept growing but, by-and-large, players and methods haven’t changed—we’re still trying to get 1% better every day.
“That said, our practices are not exactly the same because we are better. If we want to do bigger things, we have to keep getting better. We’re definitely sticking to our game plans and consistently running our systems more effectively than we ever did in the past.
“The CIF title gave them confidence and keeps them pushing and getting over bumps in the road. When we get knocked down now we are able to overcome it, get back up and move forward. The mindset of our kids has changed and when there’s a challenge, it’s ‘we can do this.’ That’s a by-product of success.”
San Dieguito has just eight players but Smithey claims that depth, along with defense, is one of the strengths of this year’s club.
“I think this in one of the deepest teams we’ve had in terms of one-through-eight and being able to hold our own on a court with anybody,” said Smithey, now in her eighth year at the helm. “That depth has allowed us to get up and pressure without having to worry about fouls.
“It’s also given us a lot of options. Our eight kids all have different strengths meaning we can be successful playing different styles of teams because we’re adaptable. It may not be the same kids scoring or getting minutes from night-to-night but that flexibility makes us good on the defensive end and really hard to guard.”
The typical starting five for the Mustangs features a backcourt of senior Jackie Sedlock and sophomore Ruby Willard, senior Addie Werbelow and junior Toni Billante on the wings and junior Skyler Pavlovich in the post. All but Willard were on the 2017 roster. Coming off the bench are juniors Mia Milne and Madeline Moe as well as sophomore Piper Ligotti.
The statistics tend to bear out Smithey’s “share the wealth” description. The Mustangs top five scorers all average between six and 11 points per contest, the four leading rebounders are separated by just 12 boards and five players sport between 37 and 49 assists. Nothing about what she’s witnessed this season has really surprised Smithey.
“Every kid is basically doing what I thought they could. It’s about adapting and consistently learning. We’ve always tried to be the best version of the team we have—it’s pretty easy to focus when that’s what you’re doing.”
The player who likely best exemplifies the growth and changes in the San Dieguito program over the past three-to-four years is Werbelow, a 5-9 livewire, who early on was basically a do-it all, shoot first and worry about it later-type who tended to take the team on her shoulders, particularly offensively.
“Addie has had a huge effect on the program,” said Smithey with pride. “People outside look at all the points she’s scored and back in 2018 we absolutely needed that.
“But her commitment and the want to be better had the biggest impact.”
Last year Werbelow became SDA’s leading all-time scorer and holds a variety of other school marks. She will come into the clash against West Hills with a career total of 1,469 points but her 2019-20 points per game mark of 10.8, while leading the team, has dropped from previous seasons, along with her attempts. But that’s not a problem for Werbelow.
“It’s weird when people talk to me about individual records,” said Werbelow. “When I go into a season, it’s always about team goals, not what I’m doing individually. I’ve never really gotten a chance to think about records—once my career is over, I’ll probably enjoy them but not during the season.” Smithey says those words are not just talk.
“Addie could have easily ‘checked out’ as a senior but instead she worked out every day this summer, is always getting extra shooting in and those are the type of things other see every day,” said Smithey. “When your highest scorer is there every day and has a want to win, it impacts the younger players.
“And she’ll do anything she can to help us win. Her shot quantity is down but it doesn’t bother her. This season, sometimes it’s assists, sometimes it’s defense, whatever we need, she does it.” Werbelow says the program makeover started in simple fashion and the progress has been steady.
“It’s crazy because as a competitor, coming in with Jackie (Sedlock), I didn’t really know what to expect from a program that had never won a CIF Playoff game,” recalled Werbelow. “It started with heart and playing with each other to build the team chemistry—career-wise, knowing where it all started, I’m most proud of how far the program has come.” She remains fixated on closing out her SDA career on the right note, meaning a second CIF trophy.
“I think we definitely want it and, as strange as it seems, wanting to get there really helps,” she said. “We have a lot of returners and we are playing as if every day is our last day playing.
“SDA may do really well next year but this team’s goal was a 2020 Division II championship—and right now, we have some unfinished business.”