Some players, more than others, have a calming influence on their teammates.
Emily Elliott has been that and much more for the Sage Hill School girls’ basketball team.
The Lightning faced an unnerving situation at the end of last season when it was learned that star guard Heather Park would transfer to Orange Lutheran for her junior year.
Well, it would have felt that way, had it not been for the knowledge that Elliott was on the way. Once the 6-foot forward arrived at summer practice, the Lightning recognized that everything was going to be just fine.
“In the summer, when she was officially in our school, you saw the difference in how when she’s on the court, things open up for everyone else,” Lightning coach Kerwin Walters said. “As long as she’s in tune with the game in terms of not being down on herself, you see it. It’s night and day.
“The spacing becomes different. Other players will take the risks, and you’ll see [the transition game] come.”
Despite losing Park, Sage Hill still had a lot coming back. Sophomore point guard Trinity Cha, senior shooting guard Kate Knollenberg, senior small forward Kenna Knollenberg and junior power forward Nadia Akbari played significant roles for the Lightning during the 2016-17 campaign.
Park’s departure was eased by the arrival of Elliott.
“With a lot of seniors being our captains and Emily coming in, there wasn’t a lot of uncertainty,” Akbari said. “We knew that we were going to be OK.”
Elliott is perhaps a better fit to take on defending Academy League champion Oxford Academy (16-1, 3-0 in league) and its stellar junior center in Austyn Masuno. Her length and athleticism can be used to bother the mid-range game of the Patriots’ top option.
Akbari, an aspiring attorney, thinks that is a convincing argument for why Sage Hill, which was 11-6 overall and 4-0 in league entering Friday, will be able to turn the tables on their league rival.
“I expect us to do fairly well in the season,” Akbari said. “I expect us to be in first place and Oxford is not going to know what hit them.”
Elliott has filled the stat sheet this season. She is averaging a double-double with 12.7 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. She has also added three blocked shots, 2.3 steals and two assists per game.
She can get to any position, any place that she wants to, athletically and academically, but there’s really not a ceiling for her right now.
Sage Hill coach Kerwin Walters
Sage Hill’s standout is yet another example of an athlete who benefited from not specializing in a single sport. She plays goalkeeper for the club soccer organization Slammers FC. Once at Sage Hill, she started at middle blocker for the girls’ volleyball team that reached the semifinals of both the CIF Southern Section Division 3 playoffs and the CIF State Southern California Regional Division II playoffs.
“I found that it was better for me because it would work different muscles of my body,” Elliott said of playing multiple sports. “With basketball, it would transfer into soccer because I was a goalie. It would help my reflexes, or it would make me catch a ball better in basketball. They would each go hand-in-hand.”
Elliott’s enrollment at the school put Walters’ mind at ease even more so than it had for his players. He knew what to expect, as he had known her father, David, since their days as teammates on the Orange Coast College men’s basketball team in the late 1990s.
Walters sees comparable traits, including their competitiveness, good composure, and a drive to be a perfectionist. He marveled over Elliott’s ambition, recalling that she told him, “One of my goals is to be one of the best student-athletes that ever walked through this school.”
Elliott’s local connections run even deeper, as she has played club basketball for the O.C. Mustangs under Carlos Juarez, who heads the Costa Mesa High girls’ basketball program.
Now in his sixth season as Sage Hill’s coach, Walters, who previously worked with the boys’ basketball program, says that the potential of the students at Sage Hill never ceases to amaze him.
“I’ve loved it for the last 10 years, and I continue to love it now,” Walters said. “You see what the future can be for our country, for this world, because we have some brilliant kids here.
“[Elliott is] very unique. She can get to any position, any place that she wants to, athletically and academically, but there’s really not a ceiling for her right now. The sky’s the limit for her.”
Although the attention that she has received in her freshman season has surprised her, Elliott has no intention of stopping now. If there is one thing that sports has taught her, it is to continue to try to close the gap on her imperfections.
“It has taught me to face challenges head on,” Elliott said. “Don’t try to avoid them. Work towards something better. If you’re not at a strong point now, then you have to work towards a stronger point than where you were at in the beginning.”
Born: Feb. 14, 2003
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Height: 6 feet
Weight: 165 pounds
Coach: Kerwin Walters
Favorite food: Spaghetti
Favorite movie: “Donnie Darko”
Favorite athletic moment: Playing at Saddleback Valley Christian in the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 3 girls’ volleyball playoffs on. Due to the unusually small size and slanted ceiling of the gym, Elliott refers to the Saddleback Valley Christian venue as “the onion.”
Week in review: The freshman forward notched double-doubles in each of her first two Academy League games, averaging 15.5 points and 17 rebounds in wins against Cerritos Whitney and Crean Lutheran last week.