Templeton High girls basketball coach Shawn Koehler knows he has a senior-laden squad that will contend for wins come postseason play.
But he also knows his Eagles enter the 2013-14 season looking up at an ever-present league rival.
“Morro Bay is the team to beat,” Koehler said. “No question about it.”
The Templeton-Morro Bay battle for Los Padres League supremacy figures to be one of the top storylines heading into the county’s girls basketball regular season.
The Pirates have gone undefeated in league play each of the past two seasons and have won three straight LPL titles, including a shared championship in 2010-11 with Santa Ynez. Meanwhile, the Eagles were 20-4 in the league the past two years with all four losses coming to Morro Bay.
It’s a changing of the guard on and off the court for the Pirates, who said goodbye to County Player of the Year Hannah Gilbert as well as longtime coach Cary Nerelli.
Gilbert is a freshman on the Cal Poly women’s team, and Nerelli is coaching the women’s program at Allan Hancock College.
Taking over on the bench is Jennifer Myers, a 1990 Morro Bay graduate who began her tenure as an assistant under Nerelli two years later.
“I kind of bleed Pirate blue,” Myers said.
Myers inherits a roster that graduated the top two rebounders from last year (Gilbert and Jerrica Crosby), but returns a trio of experienced guards in Sierra Schwellenbach, Nikki Machado and Kara Schmidt.
Myers said junior Olivia MacDonald figures to assume Gilbert’s role in the post, and the 6-foot forward is “becoming a force.”
The Pirates are 7-1 so far this year, including wins over San Luis Obispo, Atascadero and Righetti. Morro Bay’s lone loss was a 61-26 setback against Garces.
Through eight games, Schwellenbach is averaging 16.8 points per game to go along with a team-high 7.9 rebounds and 6.1 steals.
MacDonald is the next-highest scorer and rebounder at 8.8 and 5.4, respectively.
“Honestly, when you lose the captain of the ship like we did (with Gilbert), it would be easy for the team to not be as dedicated,” Myers said. “But from the beginning, they’ve just been amazing. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
At Templeton, the Eagles return the bulk of their team from a year ago, led by All-County first-team forward Mari Stewart.
The 6-foot senior averaged 17.7 points and 15.6 rebounds as a junior, and is well on her way toward duplicating — or improving — those statistics in her final year.
Stewart has recorded a double-double in every game thus far for the 5-0 Eagles, including a 23-point, 19-rebound performance in a 66-46 season-opening win over Atascadero.
According to her coach, Stewart’s success is well earned.
“Her work ethic is unparalleled,” Koehler said. “We didn’t have practice (last) Saturday, and her and I still went to the gym to work on some things. She kept shooting until I couldn’t rebound anymore.”
Joining Stewart as leaders on the court are fellow seniors Marissa Torres and Autumn Russell.
Torres is a veteran point guard, while Russell earned County Volleyball Player of the Year honors and can “jump through the roof,” according to Koehler.
Morro Bay and Templeton are set to face each other Jan. 15 at Morro Bay and Feb. 7 at Templeton in a pair of games that will go a long way toward figuring out the LPL hierarchy.
“Templeton is always a fun team to play,” Myers said. “They are always a contender, but we never take anyone lightly. We all play good basketball on the Central Coast.”
Fresh faces in SLO County
San Luis Obispo had seven players average more than a point per game en route to last year’s run to the CIF-Southern Section Division 3A semifinals.
Only one is back this season, so expectations are tempered in the early going for coach Dan Monroe and standout senior Jessica Judge.
“It’s going to be a learning year,” Monroe said. “We’re going to make mistakes — we’re young — but we’re going to try not to make the same mistakes.”
San Luis Obispo is 7-2, and has gotten consistent double-digit scoring from Judge along with improving play down low from junior Natalia Demartini and sophomore Stephanie Brenner.
Despite not having a senior on the roster, Arroyo Grande figures to improve upon last year’s 3-9 league record in large part to the return of Olivia Galindo and Ashlyn Herlihy.
Galindo led the Eagles in scoring as a sophomore with 8.2 points per game, and Herlihy averaged 9.0 boards per game as a freshman.
Atascadero (6-3) capped an undefeated run through the Perry Ford Invitational last week with a 47-44 win over Ridgeview. Sabrina Degnan recorded a double-double in the win with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Paso Robles (0-7) lost leading scorer Molly Donovan to graduation, and will turn to players such as seniors Jamika Martin and Kailey Martin to shoulder the load.
“I don’t think there’s going to be anyone that runs away with the league,” Monroe said. “I think any team has the capability of getting beat on any night.”
Nipomo coach David Mendez said he has a younger team than the squad that finished third in the LPL last year. The Titans will lean on seniors Mercedes Rodriguez and Taylor Nevitt on offense while less-experienced players find their footing.
As an independent, Mission Prep is off to a 3-5 start with wins over Paso Robles, Independence and Bakersfield. The Royals will be led by underclassmen such as juniors Carly Colvin and Taylor Neal as well as sophomores I’raya Smith and Noelle Laird.