Column: Can any team keep Juju Watkins and Sierra Canyon from another title?
When Juju Watkins walks into a gym, people pay attention. Since her freshman basketball season, she has been on a path to greatness. Everyone sees it, knows it, predicts it. Now it’s up to her to complete the task.
In her senior year at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High, Watkins will be surrounded by an impressive group of future college players, making the Trailblazers a candidate to be not only the best team in California but the best in the nation. Eleven of 12 players return from last season’s Open Division state championship team.
Coach Alicia Komaki has already concluded the Trailblazers are a very good team. But that’s not the goal.
“We want to be great,” she said.
Having the 6-foot-2 Watkins, considered the No. 1 player in the nation for the class of 2023, certainly helps. So does the presence of an improving junior in Mackenly Randolph, who ranks among the best for the class of 2024. Together, Watkins and Randolph won a gold medal playing for the U17 national team this summer in Hungary.
Opposing players and coaches know that Watkins is a trendsetter and generational talent.
“You haven’t seen anything like her in my 23 years of coaching,” Etiwanda coach Stan Delus said.
“She’s doing amazing things,” said Hana Speaks, the reigning Mission League player of the year from L.A. Marlborough High. “It’s great to be part of the same generation.”
Watkins is scheduled to make her college announcement on Tuesday with USC, Stanford and South Carolina the finalists.
Watkins appreciates the recognition and respect.
“I respect everybody who wants to play their best game against me,” Watkins said. “It challenges me to play my best game also.”
Etiwanda is the one battle-tested team capable of challenging the Trailblazers. The Eagles defeated Sierra Canyon 69-57 in the Southern Section Open Division finals before losing their only game of the season in the regional final, 60-51, to the Trailblazers when Watkins scored 29 points. The Eagles return 12 players from their 29-1 team.
“This year’s group is up for the challenge,” Delus said. “Since we started in August, we picked it up tremendously defensively because it was our main focus after we defended in that last game.”
Junior 6-1 forward Kennedy Smith and sophomore point guard Aliyahna Morris lead the Eagles, who have added 6-1 San Bernardino Cajon transfer Myelle Richards. Etiwanda and Sierra Canyon aren’t scheduled to play this season unless they meet in the playoffs.
Delus is already thinking how to deal with Watkins.
“You have to constantly move and shift your defense,” he said. “You have to attack her as well and make her defend.”
Among other teams and players to watch, Santa Ana Mater Dei and veteran coach Kevin Kiernan have talented guards Caia Elisaldez and Hannah Vela.
L.A. Windward returns guard Skye Belker, a Princeton commit and one of the best three-point shooters in the Southland.
Corona Santiago has picked up star guard Destiny Agubata from Etiwanda. She averaged 17 points last season.
Chloe Briggs from Ontario Christian will be a four-year starter who averaged 22.7 points last season.
Here is the preseason ranking of Southland teams by CalHiSports.com:
1. Sierra Canyon
3. Mater Dei
6. Orangewood Academy
7. Rosary Academy
8. Bishop Montgomery
11. Granada Hills
12. Oaks Christian
13. Sage Hill
14. Corona Santiago
15. Bishop Alemany
17. Long Beach Poly
19. Santa Margarita
20. Orange Lutheran
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