High School Sports

Raven Taylor is The Tribune's Jay Cowitz Award winner

It took Raven Taylor longer than most to find the spark she needed to become the basketball player she is today.

After being cut from her seventh-grade team, she decided not to play in eighth grade, before returning to the sport as a freshman at Atascadero High.

Even then, though, a lack of confidence lingered, until her brother, Treyvon Russell, offered a career-changing pep talk early in her sophomore year.

“We were talking about my future,” Taylor said. “I was really pessimistic toward things like my basketball career and my ability to be successful.

“He basically just gave me the motivation to try harder,” Taylor said. “It’s been a whole lot different since that day.”

Two years after that helpful lecture, Taylor led the PAC 7 in both scoring and rebounding, earning The Tribune’s Jay Cowitz Award as the San Luis Obispo County Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

Taylor, recently named the PAC 7 MVP, averaged 17.5 points per game, No. 1 in the county, and grabbed 12.3 rebounds per game, No. 3 in the county.

She had 11 games in which she scored at least 20 points, and failed to score in double figures only once.

Atascadero went 20-5 overall, including a 10-2 second-place league mark, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs. The Greyhounds’ pair of postseason wins was more than any other county squad from the PAC 7 or Los Padres League.

In giving advice, Russell had plenty of stories to pull from, being one of the most productive Atascadero football players ever. He rushed for 4,341 yards from 1996 to 1998, the second-highest total in Greyhounds history.

Only days after that pivotal conversation with his younger sister in August 2007, Russell unexpectedly died of natural causes at 26.

A plaque hangs in his honor in front of Ewing Gym, where Taylor just finished playing her home games as a senior.

“Every time I have a good game, I think about him,” she said. “It’s like I’m trying to impress him, to show him that I can do whatever I want to do.”

QUICKNESS, REBOUNDING SEPARATED TAYLORA svelte 5-foot-10 forward, Taylor presented opposing teams with a confounding matchup problem every night. She was crafty and athletic enough to be accounted for inside, blocking 1.1 shots per contest and snatching more offensive rebounds per game (6.6) than defensive (5.7).

“She’s almost the best offensive rebounder I’ve ever seen,” said Theresa Kendrick, in her eighth year of coaching the North County Swoosh club team, to which Taylor belongs. “She does it all with a knack for positioning.”

At the same time, she was swift enough to win footraces with most guards in the open court.“With her athletic ability, who are you going to put on her?” Greyhounds coach Jim Stecher said. “You could say, ‘This 6-2 person or this 6-3 person.’ Well, good luck. They can’t run the floor with her.”

Taylor displayed that kind of athleticism early, but it was through her club experiences with the Swoosh and Santa Barbara Blazers that Taylor became truly versatile. She developed an effective mid-range jumper that forced opponents’ post players out of the key. That new-found versatility was on display early in her senior season when she was an all-tournament selection at the San Luis Obispo Moriarty Enterprises Holiday Classic in December.

In January, her expanded repertoire led to 15 points in a key 44-38 win over defending PAC 7 champion Arroyo Grande that snapped the Eagles’ 24-game league winning streak.

“That game is something I’ll always remember,” Taylor said. “That was the best game we had.”With a chance to seize a share of the PAC 7 title soon afterward, though, Atascadero stumbled at Pioneer Valley in the regular-season finale, falling 56-54. Outside of Taylor — who was 10-of-12 shooting for 22 points — the Greyhounds shot 11 of 40.

“We were getting a little too overconfident,” Taylor recalled of the aftermath of the Arroyo Grande win. “I told my team, ‘We can’t be so happy right now. We still have to play — the season’s not over with. We have to keep our heads in the game.’ ”

Indeed, Atascadero quickly refocused, outdoing its No. 13 seed in the postseason by routing Cabrillo 61-41 and upsetting fourth-seeded La Cañada 53-51 before being edged by Oak Park 54-46 in the quarterfinals.

LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT COLLEGE FITTaylor has already received an offer to play collegiately at Richmond, but the school doesn’t offer her long-desired major of zoology. Taylor, who has a 3.8 grade-point average, has already been accepted into six colleges independent of basketball scenarios.

“I don’t feel like I should forget about what I’ve always wanted to do,” Taylor said. “I have to have a good balance between basketball and academics.”

Michigan recently inquired, and she’s in the process of sending her game film to the Wolverines. Kent State and Miami of Ohio have also expressed interest, among others. Although Taylor may not have prototypical height for a Division I-level forward, she more than makes up for it with her natural athletic ability, her coaches said.

“In my 20 years of coaching, she might be the best natural athlete I’ve seen on the floor,” Stecher said. “She just kind of flows like a butterfly out there.”

Stecher compared Taylor’s defensive commitment to that of 2004 Atascadero grad Haylee Donaghe, who won Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors this season at UC Davis.

“Whoever takes a chance on her,” Stecher said, “is going to get a gem.”