It's an interesting time to be a girls basketball team in the Tri-Valley League.
Between Amanda Ward at Windsor, Katie Chavez at Holy Family and Kristina Cavey of Berthoud, the league supplied three of the state's top 4A players in 2015-16. But all of them were seniors, leaving no incumbent star player among the eight league teams.
Count the Erie Tigers as a team that firmly believes the league is open for the taking this season.
With new energy in former Centaurus head coach Liz Russell coming over to lead the program, Erie also has a roster largely of returning players that battled through a 10-13 season last year despite never finding its footing offensively.
That looks to change this year under Russell, who guided the Warriors to a 20-4 mark last season.
"I think that we are playing more as a team already, and our chemistry is already really grown over the summer and fall," senior point guard Darby Berringer, one of four returning starters, said recently. "In close games, games that it comes down to a couple buckets, last year I think we tried to do a lot ourselves but this year I think we understand that we need to play as a team to be able to finish."
"We have a strong coach who is leading us in a great direction," junior McKayley Green said. "We're more of a cohesive group."
One would figure that, given there are 13 girls from last year's varsity team that bought in and returned for this season. All but one of those players participated in at least 10 games, too.
Russell, who teaches at Erie, definitely took notice of that when the coaching job opened up. She also saw that in Green, she has a centerpiece for a couple of years who has already proven to be an upper-echelon type player.
As a freshman, Green averaged eight points and 8.8 rebounds a game; she increased those numbers to 11.7 points and 9.1 boards on average as a sophomore.
"Making the switch from Centaurus was a tough choice ... but I watched Erie a lot last year scouting other teams, actually. Part of making the choice I did was coming over to a team I thought could win," Russell said. "We've worked all spring, summer and fall and the level of commitment is amazing. It speaks to what they want to do."
The Tigers are going to have to find ways to score more points. They were fifth in the league in scoring at 43.1 points per game (Berthoud was first with 60 points per).
But they have the pieces. Besides Green, Berringer averaged 7.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 steals a game. Amanda Farineau and Jade Phillips, the two other returning starters, should be more reliable on the offensive end, too. The team did lose Annika Turner to injury and Autumn Purcell's status is also up in the air because of an injury — but if they latter can play that adds another high-minutes girl to the equation.
"The playbook and the mentality I had within the system at Centaurus will meld very well here, so we've been working on fast break and getting up and down the court as many times as possible," Russell said. "We've also been working on discipline for those times we need to pull it back out."
Green hopes to be utilized more as a wing player.
"I feel like I'm going to be able to use my versatility a little more since coach Liz is going to have me playing some guard," Green said. "We enjoy having Liz as our coach because she brings so much energy, and she is uplifting which is great to hear when you're out on the court."
Russell is one of four new coaches in the league — joining Brett Andersen at Frederick, Vern Rathbun at Mead and Jim Porth at Windsor. That adds more intrigue to how things will turn out, but for Berringer the goal is simple.
"Our end goal is to make the playoffs since we haven't been since my freshman year, but we're taking it game-by-game and take every opponent as a huge step towards our goal," Berringer said.