Basketball: Anzar overcoming odds

Anzar High junior captains Fatima Gomez, Destiny Hansen and Skylar Seyffert are looking to lead the team to a Coastal Division title.

Destiny Hansen didn’t start playing basketball until her freshman year. Born and raised in Prunedale, Hansen never really gave the sport a thought because there simply wasn’t a place to play.

“Not unless I wanted to hop the fence to the elementary school,” said the Anzar High junior point guard, who along with fellow juniors Fatima Gomez and Skylar Seyffert are the captains of the team. “If there was more opportunities, then I probably would’ve signed up to play basketball at an earlier age. I wish I had started playing a long time ago.”

Hansen, who is one of the Hawks’ top players, said her teammates faced a similar situation growing up in Aromas and San Juan Bautista—the opportunities to play were limited at best.

“Some girls have a hoop in their driveway, but in the areas where we live, there’s really not a park with a basketball hoop,” Hansen said. “Where I live, the only (youth sports) league you can sign up for is softball.”

And therein lies the problem: There are no club teams and few youth leagues in Aromas, Prunedale and San Juan Bautista, where most of the Anzar High students reside. This has a negative domino effect in terms of skill development, as athletes have little chance to learn the game, let alone play in an organized league. By the time they get to Anzar, coaches often have to teach the very basics of the sport.

Anzar rarely has enough numbers to field a junior varsity team in any sport, let alone a freshmen squad as most schools do. Mark Cisneros, who is in his second year as the Anzar High girls basketball coach, said he had to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching the bare-bone fundamentals of the game a year ago. That’s what happens when players come in with virtually no experience playing the game.

“Two of our players had never even played basketball before,” Cisneros said. “And a lot of them never touched a basketball until the seventh or eighth grade. Our left-hand layups were non-existent last year. We struggled with a lot of things. In our first four or five games, we were barely putting up 15 to 20 shots a game. Toward the end of the season, our numbers went up to the 30s and 40s. Now we’re putting up to 60 shots a game. They’ve come a long way.”

Despite his players’ lack of experience, Cisneros has thoroughly enjoyed the process of seeing his players develop.

“We’ve got eight juniors on the team, and it’s a great group that deserves a lot of credit,” he said. “They’ve invested their time and decided to show up and be committed in practice. They’re very coachable and I’m pretty happy that I’m coaching this team. I would like them to experience what it’s like to be in the playoffs and see how far they can go.”

If Anzar ends up making the Central Coast Section playoffs, it will be a powerful testament to a team that has had to overcome one of the biggest barriers yet—lacking the opportunities most of their counterparts get to enjoy living in bigger cities with established recreation programs, youth leagues and club programs (the Hawks entered the week with a 2-1 record in the Mission Trail League Coastal Division).

One thing is for certain: Cisneros has helped breathe life into a program that has routinely struggled, even against schools of similar size.

“He’s an awesome coach,” Hansen said. “You can tell he genuinely cares about the sport and about us as players. From last year you can see how much more passionate the girls have gotten about the game. We’re much more willing to play because he has so much positive energy.”

Cisneros knows why some high schools have strong seasons every year, while others do not. It comes down to strong youth programs, leagues and travel teams in the local area. In addition, middle schools with outstanding sports teams act as a feeder into the high schools.

“When the kids come into high school, they are waiting to be polished and are competing for league and section titles,” Cisneros said. The Hawks entered the week with a 3-2 record in the Mission Trail Coastal League. “That’s what we need to establish here in this area.”

Cisneros knows change won’t come overnight; after all, San Juan Bautista, Aromas and Prunedale—three towns where many Anzar students reside—have no youth basketball leagues or club programs, and few places to even play pick-up basketball. Cisneros has talked with Anzar athletic director Mike McKinney and other athletic directors of middle schools in the area about opening up gymnasiums to give youths more opportunities to play the game.

“There is no outlet for these kids to play basketball in these towns,” Cisneros said. “Middle schools are fenced off, and we would love to start having a place where kids can play an open gym either in San Juan or Aromas so they can get comfortable with the game.”

Cisneros would love to see the aforementioned towns launch summer basketball camps and programs. Cisneros, who lives in Gilroy but grew up in San Jose, didn’t need to go far to find a variety of parks or open gyms during his playing days.

“Most of the girls on the team tell me the only time they get to play basketball is when it’s offered at the school,” he said.

Despite the limitations, Cisneros expressed optimism for the future. The Hawks’ three junior captains—Fatima Gomez, Destiny Hansen and Skylar Seyffert—spent the past off-season playing on a club team for the first time ever.

“The three girls didn’t see much playing time because of their skills compared to the other girls who had more experience, but they did get to practice and go to tournaments,” he said. “They saw a whole new world, and I think they want to play more competitively at a higher level.”

Hansen, a junior point guard, said the team has made dramatic strides since last season.
“We’re really starting to come together,” she said. “We played summer league where Monte Vista Christian hosted games, and more than half of the girls on our team participated in that.”

The byproduct of playing in the summer, of course, is improved play during the prep season. Even though the Hawks didn’t win a lot of games against bigger schools in the non-league portion of their schedule, they’ve shown enough strides where teams can’t just beat them simply by showing up.

“The highlight of our season is when we go up against bigger schools and visibly shake them up for a time,” Hansen said. “They get visibly frustrated. I’m most proud of us keeping up our energy throughout the game and not getting winded. We put a lot of effort in our conditioning and making smart decisions in the games. We all started as newbies, and now we’re really starting to see things clicking with our game. It’s a really awesome feeling.”

Cisneros knows the process of implementing youth leagues, club programs and open gyms—in other words, building a new culture—takes time. Yet he sees the potential in Gomez, Hansen and Seyffert, and knows there are many more players who can be impact players if they were exposed to the game at an earlier age.

“Maybe when we can start some camps, we’ll have some of the girls help run them and be a part of the community to teach the younger generation how to play the game the right way,” he said. “Their dedication will be passed on to the next generation, who will pass it down to the next generation. In the future, we would like to have a freshmen and junior varsity team.”

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