Cary Nerelli believed his team had potential coming into this season.
Still, with two freshmen and five sophomores comprising most of the roster, the 24th-year Morro Bay High girls basketball coach was reserved in his optimism.
“These young kids, despite their youth, are a talented group,” Nerelli said. “But they needed a catalyst to bring that talent to the surface.”
That’s where senior Megan Hansen came in.
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“It’s almost impossible to quantify what she was able to bring,” Nerelli said. “It was a presence that she had. She’s one of those athletes that has enough charisma that the players around her become better than they would be without her presence. And I think that, in a nutshell, was kind of what happened with this group.”
Hansen, the Pirates’ 5-foot-6 point guard, has been named the Jay Cowitz Award winner as The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year after lifting Morro Bay to a co-Los Padres League championship. It was the program’s first league title in 12 years.
“It’s really special,” Hansen said. “Throughout the season, all the girls stepped up. They all improved so much, and it definitely contributed to all of our accomplishments.”
Morro Bay (20-6) also went 2-0 against San Luis Obispo County PAC 7 teams in nonleague play and 2-1 against state tournament-qualifier Mission Prep, which ultimately ended the Pirates’ run in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4A playoffs, 43-36.
Along the way, Hansen had team-leading averages of 14 points and 2.5 assists (along with a second-best 4.7 rebounds), numbers that came within the framework of a methodical system.
Anchored by Hansen and her 3.2 steals average, Morro Bay held its opponents to 32 points per game, nearly five points fewer than any other team in the county.
An unquestioned leader
A considerable part of what made Hansen’s year distinctive was the way her success came against the unique defensive looks she faced individually.
A third-year starter, Hansen had 26 points in the Pirates’ season opener, a 57-38 win over Paso Robles, and also scored 26 in a 60-40 win over North Bakersfield at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, where she was an all-tournament selection in the Green Division.
At that point, Morro Bay was off to an 8-1 start. By the time league play arrived, with little mystery as to whom the Pirates’ trigger was, LPL teams routinely ran multiple defenders at Hansen, and often resorted to a box-and-one approach designed to make it more difficult for her to have free range of the floor.
“When I would do my game plans to defend them,” Templeton coach Shawn Koehler said, “we couldn’t leave her alone. She penetrated well, she was so unselfish, you couldn’t press her, and she would make good decisions with the ball.”
With opponents focusing on Hansen, opportunities arose for her teammates.
“She was a coach on the floor, and where her presence was most helpful or most felt was when we were in a close game, or where we were behind,” Nerelli said. “I could name a dozen times this season where I could see her look up at the clock, and instantly knew that she understood the score, the clock and the situation, and would handle it on the court without me calling a timeout.”
With all-county second-team center Hannah Gilbert providing a stabilizing presence in the post, a perimeter supporting cast led by all-LPL first-team wing Nicki Bloom also developed to provide complementary scoring to Hansen.
“Everyone was a shooter,” Hansen said. “Everyone contributed their part.”
Added Nerelli: “The kids were flexible enough that we were able to implement those (strategies to beat the Hansen-themed defenses) in practice situations and then carry it out onto the floor.”
All the while, Hansen’s teammates appreciated the way she managed being the only upperclassman on a league-title contender.
“She was a leader,” Bloom said. “She definitely helped with making sure that everyone knew that we were all together as one, and not separate (by seniority).
“She was always super-intricate of how she explained things,” Bloom added. “She shows you by example, but also lets you know (vocally) during practice.”
Morro Bay finished 10-2 in league play, losing only to co-champion Santa Ynez. Hansen was named co-league MVP, and was also selected to the all-Southern Section Division 4A first team.
Looking to continue playing
Hansen, who’s hoping to play collegiately, has recently been in contact with Concordia, an NAIA program in Irvine, in addition to a handful of other four-year schools.
She may opt to play at the community college level first, though, before then transferring.
Nerelli is confident that no matter the fit, Hansen’s future should be bright given her speed and quickness, skill level and court sense.
Adapting to more of a full-court, run-and-gun style this past weekend at the Kiwanis Central Coast All-Star Basketball Spectacular, Hansen had 25 points in a 92-68 San Luis Obispo County win over northern Santa Barbara County, winning the game’s MVP award. She also won the 3-point shootout contest at the event.
“Coaching her was just such a joy on an everyday basis,” Nerelli said. “One thing I can guarantee you is she’ll be playing somewhere next year, with that same smile on her face and her same enthusiasm for the game.”
The Tribune’s All-County Girls Basketball First TeamPlayer of the Year:
Megan Hansen, Morro Bay, G, Sr.
Jenna Dunbar, Mission Prep, G, Jr.
Mary Kate Evans, Atascadero, F, So.
Bri Harvey, Mission Prep, F, Jr.
Haley MacDonald, Arroyo Grande, G, Sr.
Madi Ventura, Arroyo Grande, G, Sr.
Emma Weinreich, Arroyo Grande, C, Jr.
Shannon Berwick, Atascadero, F, Sr.
Hannah Gilbert, Morro Bay, C, So.
Lauren Stuedemann, Templeton, G, Fr.
Tessa Underwood, Nipomo, F, Sr.
Kaylee Williams, Mission Prep, G, Jr.
Lindsey Wolf, Arroyo Grande, F, Jr.
Nicki Bloom, Morro Bay, G, So.
Maddie Carr, Arroyo Grande, F, Sr.
Molly Donovan, Paso Robles, C, So.
Malie Guy, San Luis Obispo, G, Sr.
Grace Napier, Coastal Christian, F, Sr.
Casey Nero, Atascadero, G, Jr.
Paige O’Sullivan, Templeton, C, Fr.
Alyssa Palma, Atascadero, G, Sr.
Cristy Scarson, North County Christian, G, Jr.
Amani White, Paso Robles, F, So.