LAGUNA BEACH — Less than two weeks ago, Xavier Castellano became a father for the first time.
The players on his Estancia High girls' basketball team aren't quite as young as Castellano's baby daughter Lilah, but the Eagles are still very inexperienced.
On Tuesday night they began their defense of last year's Orange Coast League title. Only one player, sophomore Celia Duran, played much last year to help the Eagles win that title by going a perfect 10-0 in league.
Estancia graduated three Newport-Mesa Dream Team players, including Co-Player of the Year Kassie Stratton. Duran has gone from a pure shooter off the bench to a point guard for Estancia.
The Eagles still appear to be in good hands.
Duran scored 22 points and junior center Gianna Jason added a career-high 16 points as Estancia defeated Laguna Beach, 51-34, in both teams' league opener at Laguna Beach High.
It wasn't pretty. The Eagles, tied for 16th in the CIF Southern Section Division 3A poll, will take the result.
"We have 15 girls, and all 15 play because we're so young," Castellano said. "We're just trying to get them more in-game experience. We make freshman mistakes, and it's varsity basketball. Against good teams, that kills us ... But we're improving. From where we were at the beginning of the year until now, we're a different team. A lot of girls are doing things now that I didn't think they were going to do until next year. Our progression has gone nicely."
Estancia (9-8) staved off an upset attempt from Laguna Beach (0-8). The Eagles' press defense was usually effective; Duran had 12 steals and Jason added seven.
Duran, who is averaging 20.4 points per game over her last five games, could always score. Castellano has been as impressed lately with her decision-making as point guard. In Tuesday's game she set up senior forward Jenny Rubacalva nicely on all three of Rubacalva's layups.
"I definitely had to grow a lot," Duran said. "Now it's not just, 'Oh I turned the ball over. Oops, I can get out of it.' Now it's on [me].
"In a way I think it's fun, but at the same time it's a big responsibility. But I do have fun. When you give a nice pass to a teammate who usually doesn't score, that makes them so happy. And it makes me so happy. It makes me feel accomplished. You get a little bit of adrenaline, and they get that same adrenaline."
The Eagles led nearly the whole game, but usually only by single digits. They led, 27-18, at halftime.
Castellano called timeout early in the third quarter after Laguna Beach easily broke the Eagles' press, finding sophomore center Jane Wallin for a layup. Wallin led the Breakers, who also graduated their top two scorers of a year ago in Emily Writer and Sam Garner, with a career-high 18 points.
Estancia soon regrouped. Jason helped her team widen the lead, scoring eight points in the third quarter. She had a double-double, with the 16 points and 14 rebounds.
"It sounds so cliché, but it was really fun," Jason said of the career-high point total. "Lately I've been missing my layups in practice and the past couple of games, so it was fun to put it up and make it."
Persis Williams added four points for Estancia off the bench, and fellow sophomore guard Bryanna Vernon nailed a three-pointer. Freshman forward Mishae Jones added five rebounds off the bench for Estancia, which indeed did play everyone in uniform.
"I feel like when we play everybody the first time, we'll learn their strong parts and where their weaknesses are," Duran said. "If you notice, we have a really talented team. We have Bryanna as shooter, we have an inside presence. We have everything, but we're so young. I think as soon as it clicks, we're going to be back [playing] league champ-style basketball. We just need to tweak it a little bit and get everybody on the same page.
"It's a good experience for all of us. It's like we're all working together."
Castellano said this year it looks like the league is pretty even. The Eagles play host to Godinez, which also won its league opener, on Thursday.
"We're supposed to be down," Castellano said. "We're not supposed to be as good, and that's fine. I'm sure people are gunning for us. The biggest thing is just making those girls understand that you still are Estancia. You guys won last year. I don't care who's on the team, you've got to play like defending league champs. No one's going to come in here and roll over."
Orange Coast League
Estancia 51, Laguna Beach 34
Estancia 11 – 16 – 12 – 12 — 51
Laguna 6 – 12 – 10 – 6 — 34
Est – Duran 22, Jason 16, Rubacalva 6, Williams 4, Vernon 3.
3-pt. goals – Duran 3, Vernon 1.
LB – Wallin 18, Rodriguez 6, Knutson 3, Even 3, Strickland 2, Humphries 2.
3-pt. goals – Knutson 1.