Many times during her three-year high school basketball career, Karléh Wilson wondered if it was all worth it.
Transferring in to Corona del Mar High from Louisiana, she said it was hard to fit in during her sophomore year.
"There was this power struggle thing going on," Wilson said. "I wanted to be more vocal but I felt like I couldn't. My track career was going a lot better than I thought it would, so I thought I would have to quit basketball so I could focus on track."
Last year she became an elite thrower in track and field. Prior to her senior year, Wilson again seriously considered hanging up her hightops. This time it was more serious.
"I quit," she said. "I took basketball off my schedule and told the track coaches I was going to be in track for the whole school year."
Wilson said CdM girls' basketball Coach Mark Decker and her teammates eventually talked her out of it. It was an emotional time for Wilson and her teammates.
"I kind of realized that they actually cared," she said. "I didn't think they would care, but everyone really cared. I think it really did bring us a lot closer. It wasn't just about, 'Oh, we might lose Karléh,' but everyone started realizing that we really wanted to be together. Especially the six seniors, we wanted this to be our year."
Wilson was an integral part of that special year for the CdM girls' basketball team. For that, she earns Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year honors.
She averaged team-bests of 10.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. As a 5-foot-6 post player, she matched up with players several inches taller than her nearly every game, always tenacious.
"When I was really young, my mom and my grandmother always taught me to walk with my head really high," she said. "My chin was always in the sky. People maybe thought that I was a little snobby, but growing up I always thought that I was taller than I actually was. My chin was always up. So when I finally started playing basketball, I was always playing the post, just because I played like I was taller. Back in Louisiana, the girls I was practicing with were extremely tall, well over 6 feet tall. It was just in my blood to play the post. It's not really difficult for me, because that's the way I learned to play basketball."
The second-team All-Pacific Coast League selection helped CdM (11-17, 1-9 in league) win a league game for the first time in two years. Yet, the accomplishments the Sea Kings will probably remember most are ones that ended long streaks.
CdM beat Newport Harbor, 30-27, winning the Battle of the Bay for the first time in five years. They also won a CIF Southern Section Division 3A first-round playoff game, defeating Saddleback for the program's first CIF victory since 2001.
In the middle of it all was Wilson, the one who nearly walked away.
"Karléh consistently did everything for us," Decker said. "She was tough and she didn't back down from anybody. She just has this energy about her, and it's contagious. We fed off her energy. That was a huge difference for us."
Wilson, who will compete in track and field at Yale next year, has moved on to the spring season. She is top 10 in the Southern Section rankings in both the shot put and discus.
She said her basketball journey was definitely worth it.
"I have to say, out of all of the years that I played at CdM, this was the most fun year," Wilson said. "I really would have regretted not playing."
Here's a look at the six other players on this year's Dream Team:
Thompson, last year's Newport-Mesa Co-Player of the Year, remained a presence in the post for the Sailors. The 6-foot-2 senior center averaged 13.9 points, 10 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game for the Sailors. She was second in rebounding in Orange County, and first in blocks. She was a first-team All-Sunset League selection.
Thompson, who will play volleyball at Hawaii Pacific, helped Newport Harbor (7-19, 0-10 in league) through a difficult season as the Sailors dealt with injuries and transfers. Of Coach Justin Long's projected starting five, Thompson was the only one who played this season. Yet she put up her stats, despite routinely facing double or triple teams.
Aguilar, a shooting guard, stepped up as a scorer in her senior year with the Mustangs. The first-team All-Orange Coast League selection averaged a team-best 11.5 points and three steals per game for Costa Mesa, bumping her scoring average up to 16.2 per game in league. She helped Costa Mesa (13-14, 7-3 in league) finish second in league for the second straight year and advance to the CIF Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs.
Aguilar scored a game-high 21 points as the Mustangs beat Estancia, 47-35, on Feb. 8, helping the Mustangs clinch second in league and win the Battle for the Bell.
Melanie de Arakal
Corona del Mar
The 5-foot-5 senior guard was another essential part of the Sea Kings' success this year. She averaged eight points per game for CdM, and connected on 28 three-pointers for the season.
de Arakal also developed a reputation as a team leader and clutch player. She led CdM in scoring in both of its CIF playoff games, scoring 11 points in a first-round win over Saddleback and 15 in a second-round loss at La Cañada.
Duran, a 5-foot-5 point guard, was cast into the spotlight this year for the Eagles after Estancia graduated its entire starting five from last year's Orange Coast League championship team. The sophomore responded, averaging a team-best — and area-best — 15.8 points per game for a team with very limited varsity experience. She made 45 three-pointers for Estancia (14-13, 6-4), which finished third in league and advanced to the Division 3A playoffs.
Duran also had the highest single-game total of the season in Newport-Mesa, exploding for a career-high 34 points as the Eagles edged Costa Mesa, 61-60, on Jan. 24.
The Lightning's point guard was again a leader in her senior season. She averaged a team-best 15.3 points per game and five assists for Sage Hill, along with three rebounds per contest. She was again a playmaker for the Lightning (5-15, 4-6 in league), who finished fourth in the Academy League. Coach Taylor Cohen called Soleimany, a three-time selection for first-team All-Academy League, the hardest worker and most driven player she has coached.
This is Soleimany's second straight Dream Team selection.
Coach Nichole Maddox said some may have overlooked the Mustangs' 5-foot-3 senior point guard, because she wasn't so much of a scorer. But Castro, a two-year captain, was definitely a leader for the Mustangs. She did more than double her scoring, averaged 4.3 points per game, a team-best 3.3 assists per game and 1.6 steals per contest for Costa Mesa.
Maddox called Castro a leader on and off the floor, a big reason why the Mustangs were able to finish second in the Orange Coast League and win back the Bell.