Hannah Gilbert led her Morro Bay High girls basketball team to two straight undefeated Los Padres League seasons as a junior and senior in which opponents rarely came close to winning.
At 6-foot-3 with a long wingspan, long fingers, and excellent mobility and coordination, she was ideally suited to dominate the paint and open up the floor for teammates to score as well.
She captured the interest of Cal Poly women’s basketball coach Faith Mimnaugh, for whom she’ll play on scholarship next year.
As a senior this season, Gilbert averaged 18 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks per game. She has been named the Jay Cowitz Award winner as The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County player of the year.
But Gilbert wasn’t always tall and athletic, recalling she was a “very short and chubby” seventh-grader.
She didn’t always carry self-assuredness onto the court. And it took time for her to groom her game under one of the county’s best in Pirates coach Cary Nerelli, who just completed his 26th year with the team.
The result culminated in Gilbert finishing with the second-most rebounds (895) and the fourth-most points (1,220) in school history.
“She has a rare combination of humility to go along with her physical talents,” Nerelli said. “She’s a well-balanced person with a warm personality. She’s a pleasure to be around on and off the court. And she’s in the gym every day. She really truly wants to be a better player in all facets of the game.”
Gilbert joins a long list of Morro Bay players of the year. Thirteen former Pirates in Nerelli’s tenure played at four-year colleges. Former stars Karena Bonds (UC Santa Barbara), Leeane Jensen (San Francisco) and Kelly Blair (Cal State Bak ersfield/San Jose State) are among the bunch.
As a senior, Gilbert led her team to a 22-4 record, losing in the quarterfinals of the CIFSouthern Section Division 4AA playoffs to Windward, the nation’s fourth-ranked team. At Morro Bay, Gilbert said basketball wasn’t just a seasonal sport. It was a yearlong commitment and her team played or practiced 10 months out of year, including a tournament it won in Utah last summer.
“I think in Utah, that was when we started to realize how good we were as a team and what we could do,” Gilbert said.
This season, led by Gilbert and junior point guard Sierra Schwellenbach, a Tribune all-county first-team selection who averaged 10 points and four assists per game, no team in the LPL came within 30 points of the Pirates.
Their dominant victories included a 51-8 win over Santa Ynez, a 51-12 rout of Santa Maria and 51-11 win over Cabrillo.
As a 5-2 seventh-grader, Gilbert said basketball was just “something to do.”
But by the end of eighth grade, she had shot up to 5-11, and as a freshman, Nerelli was starting her on his varsity squad that went 18-8 and took second in the LPL.
The quicker pace of the game was an adjustment from middle school, and Gilbert was tasked with learning the nuances.
“It was a big change,” Gilbert said. “In middle school, I was just a rebounder. I didn’t shoot or dribble or do any of that.”
Every year of her high school career, she got better, increasing her scoring from six points per game to 12, then 14, then 18.
And as a rebounder, she never averaged less than seven per game in high school, peaking last year with 11 per game.
She averaged eight rebounds per game this past season as she shared being Morro Bay’s top rebounder with senior forward Jerrica Crosby. Her rebounding numbers also dropped because she saw less playing time as the Pirates consistently routed league opponents.
Nerelli would give Gilbert a new skill to focus on each season — footwork, shooting, dribbling among them.
The idea was not only to help her high school game, but for her to play at the next level, a thought that Nerelli planted in her head early on.
“My freshman year, coach pulled me aside and said, ‘You have the fundamentals to be able to play in college,’ ” Gilbert said. “I thought if I could do it, how cool would that be? My sophomore year, I realized it was possible.”
Still, Nerelli had to reinforce lessons he imparted to his starting center.
For example, Gilbert was such an unselfish player that she would pass at times when she had open looks at the basket, which made Nerelli “so mad,” Gilbert recalls with a grin.
Or she’d favor her dominant right hand on the left side of the hoop.
“We worked hard on that, and now I don’t even think she thinks about it,” Nerelli said. “She’ll automatically go to her left hand with as much confidence as with her right.”
Another lesson was dealing with the physical contact that’s commonplace down low.
“Early on, I really just did n’t like people touching me,” Gilbert said. “My rule now is that if you hit me, I’ll hit you back. But I won’t be the one to throw the first punch. I mean, I wouldn’t punch anyone, but elbows and such.”
Rarely did Gilbert have any opponent match her size and strength, but against Windward, she met her match and then some against 6-1 post Kristen Simon, who grappled with her, using her bulk and low post guile.
Windward, an undefeated team that would beat many college teams, controlled every aspect of the game, winning 71-23, and left a Pirates squad that entered with high hopes in tears as they left the court.
“Look at us,” said Gilbert, examining photos of the game. “We just look so sad. When coach sent in the five subs, and we were losing by a lot, the crowd is all clapping and you understand that that’s it, it was just the worst thing in the world.”
Against Windward, it wasn’t so much how they lost but the realization that their playing days together were over since the team is so close, Gilbert said.
“Her attitude is what makes her so great to play with,” said Nicki Bloom, a senior guard who also was a four-year varsity player. “She never gives up. She keeps us calm and collected no matter the situation. She’s super funny and always is making us laugh. But she’s focused when she needs to be.”
Nerelli said that it’s Gilbert’s time to move on to college ball because it would be hard to create a high school basketball schedule that would challenge her enough.
“I don’t think there’s much I could do outside of creating a freelance schedule for us to give her players of her caliber to match up against,” Nerelli said. “I think it’s her time to take the next step.”
THE TRIBUNE’S ALL-COUNTY FIRST TEAM
First Team Sierra Schwellenbach, Morro Bay, Jr. Mari Stewart, Templeton, Jr. Jessica Judge, San Luis Obispo, Jr. Molly Donovan, Paso Robles, Sr. Erica Chandler, San Luis Obispo, Sr.