A positive culture can be bred out of a consistent message, as well as limited turnover in personnel.
Sage Hill School girls’ basketball coach Kerwin Walters has been able to retain Maija Wilson and Cathy Nguyen as assistant coaches.
In spite of that, Walters said that instilling a culture only goes as far as team leaders will allow. He has three right now that he could not be happier with, beginning with junior forward Emily Elliott.
“I can push what we need to do, and most of [the players] will take it, but if our leadership group at our top, if that does not go through for them and come down, that culture doesn’t happen,” Walters said. “You need good leaders at the top, which we have.”
All season long, the Lightning have excelled in following the examples of Elliott, senior center Zoe Mazakas and sophomore point guard Isabel Gomez.
The trio has been largely responsible for Sage Hill’s 12-5 start to the season, which included winning the SoCal Holiday Prep Classic NAIA Division title in San Diego last week.
Elliott put up averages of 25.5 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, two steals and 1.8 blocked shots per game in being named to the all-tournament team. In the championship game against Oceanside El Camino on Dec. 30, Elliott scored 31 points to go with 22 rebounds to lead the Lightning to a 62-57 victory.
A multi-sport athlete who also plays volleyball for Sage Hill, Elliott has not been completely healthy at any point this school year. She continues to play through a right shoulder injury that often forced her to attack balls with her non-dominant left hand on the volleyball court.
“It definitely has been a constant challenge throughout the whole season, from the start of preseason to where we are now,” said Elliott, who added that she has been seeing a physical therapist. “I have to constantly keep working it and keep getting it stronger, so that I can prevent any other injuries.”
Some Lightning teammates might suggest that Mazakas and Elliott have a Yin and Yang, or Lover and Fighter, relationship as team leaders.
“From Zoe, I’ve learned how to keep myself composed,” Gomez said. “Zoe is really good at kind of staying calm, just in general, like in life, in a bunch of different situations.
“From Emily, I don’t know how to say this, [but I’ve learned] how to not get punked, kind of. I know it sounds really weird, but Emily will not take anything from anyone. She is a very strong person, and she stands up for herself and what she believes in.”
Elliott has grown up with three brothers, which she says has helped to toughen her up. As siblings have been known to do, they have found reasons to argue over the most trivial of things, such as missing socks.
During the girls’ volleyball season, the Lightning took their lumps when senior opposite Danielle Beder missed time due to a concussion. While concussion protocol does not permit an athlete to play through such head injuries, Elliott understands the importance of her role in being on the court despite the bumps and bruises.
“I feel like if I bring the energy and the presence that I do with the team, [I can] show them that I’m willing to go the extra mile to do what is best for the team,” Elliott said. “If that means tumble on the floor, make the layup, take the shot, or rebound the ball like crazy, then I will do it to show that I’m willing to do whatever it takes for us to win and make it happen.”
Walters referred to Elliott as the team’s enforcer, paying further respect to her ability to play through pain.
“The one thing is that they have all gravitated to her,” Walters said. “They all see that she has injuries and she fights through it, she plays through it.
“She has a knee bruise, and she is still playing through it because she knows that without her, we’re not as successful without her. With that, she played extremely well.”
Elliott has already been named a Daily Pilot Girls’ Basketball Dream Team selection in each of her first two seasons, averaging a double-double each year.
The 6-foot-1 Elliott continues to produce, despite drawing frequent double teams in the paint. With Elliott leading the way, Sage Hill is ranked No. 13 in the CIF Southern Section Division 3AA poll.
During timeouts, Walters and his coaching staff address the game situation to the players. He said that Elliott is an emotional leader in the huddle.
“She will come out and say, ‘We are going to get this,’” Walters said. “She has that bravado, that energy, that substance that everyone feeds off of, that gives them the faith, the confidence [to say], ‘We’re going to get this.’
“If you look at our record, for the most part, it has come to fruition. We’re just that type of team. It does go from the top of our leadership board down, that says, ‘This is where we’re going to be.’”
Born: Feb. 14, 2003
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Height: 6 feet 1
Weight: 172 pounds
Coach: Kerwin Walters
Favorite food: Spaghetti
Favorite movie: “Inception”
Favorite athletic moment: Elliott’s favorite athletic moment was winning the NAIA Division of the SoCal Holiday Prep Classic in San Diego. She added that the team is a tight-knit group, and the tournament brought the team even closer. Winning the tournament was just “the cherry on top of a perfect week.”
Week in review: Elliott averaged 25.5 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, two steals and 1.8 blocks per game in leading Sage Hill to the SoCal Holiday Prep Classic NAIA Division title in San Diego. Elliott had 31 points and 22 rebounds in a 62-57 win over Oceanside El Camino in the championship game on Dec. 30.
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