By Stephanie Hammon
BERKELEY -- After losing six of 10 games to start the season, the Berkeley High girls basketball team's run of dominance looked just about over.
The Yellowjackets began with only two experienced varsity players -- senior captain Rachel Howard and junior forward Desire Finnie. Practices focused on the fundamentals rather than strategy.
"Expectations were totally different," coach Cheryl Draper said.
But Draper didn't accept that this would simply be a rebuilding year. Her team steadily improved, and by March, the Yellowjackets were playing their best basketball.
They entered the Division I Northern California regional playoffs as the 12th seed but won four straight games to make the state final. It was the fourth time since 2008 that the Yellowjackets played for the Division I state title under Draper, but she says this one was particularly special because of how far the team needed to go to get there.
"This season meant a lot to me because I really believed I could develop them," Draper said. "I saw something in the 12 girls I had. ... This season was not as much coaching strategy or plays, it was more teaching the (basic) skills and fundamentals."
Draper, who has been with the program since 2000, has been named the Bay Area News Group East Bay Coach of the Year in girls basketball for guiding the Yellowjackets on their improbable playoff run. She did it with just one assistant for most of the year, too.
The postseason surge almost didn't happen, though. The Yellowjackets took a lopsided loss to Heritage in the North Coast Section Division I semifinals, ending their bid for a fourth straight section title, and nearly gave up on their season.
The day after the NorCal brackets were released, only six players showed up for practice. The others were still hurting from the semifinal loss.
Draper had the remaining players get on the phone with their no-show teammates. Soon, everyone was there and the team had turned the loss to Heritage into motivation.
"I told them, if we're going to do this, then we are going to do this right," Draper said. "Once we started practice, in five minutes the energy level was up and the kids had a different attitude and mentality."
Though the season ended with a 46-28 loss to Long Beach Poly in the state title game, Draper called this year one of the most satisfying of her six seasons as Berkeley's head coach.