Jessica Bala (pictured) and Oceanside teammates Victoria Stewart and Shannice McGee are in their four season on the Pirates varsity, and their work is starting pay off.
OCEANSIDE Victoria Stewart, Jessica Bala and Shannice McGee had slogged through three grueling years without a league win while playing on the varsity girls basketball team at Oceanside High. So when the Pirates opened the Valley League season with a 25-point blowout of Valley Center on Jan. 15, the victory was met with a mixture of relief and hope for the future.
The team hasn’t looked back since.
As the regular season comes to a close this week, the Pirates are 13-13 with a 7-2 record in the Valley League and appear headed to the postseason for the first time since the 2008-09 season, the year before Stewart, Bala and McGee entered high school.
“Everybody has come together as a team,” said Stewart, a senior guard. “It’s very surprising how well we’re doing.
“Now that everybody is playing together, we’re actually performing well and winning games.”
Despite a 46-35 loss to Del Norte on Tuesday, the Pirates still have a shot to at least share the Valley League title.
An Oceanside win Friday at Mission Vista (1-20, 0-9) and a win for Del Norte (15-11, 7-2) over Ramona (18-9, 8-1) would create a three-way tie among the Pirates, Nighthawks and Bulldogs atop the final league standings.
That would be a major coup for first-year Oceanside coach Bill Finnegan, whom some might have considered crazy for accepting the challenge of righting a program with an inglorious past. Of late, the Pirates have seemingly changed coaches nearly as often as people change their socks.
“I really like the kids at Oceanside, and I feel I can make a difference in their lives,” said Finnegan, who was an assistant coach for Oceanside’s boys team for three years before becoming a girls assistant three years ago. “I think the kids knew me and knew that we would work extremely hard. They have big hearts, they work hard and listen, and they’re great kids. I don’t think it has much to do with me — give credit to the girls.”
Tuesday’s loss revealed to Finnegan that his team needs to clean a few things up before the playoffs begin next week. The Pirates shot just 1-for-11 on free throws and were outrebounded 54-33. The team’s offense operates best when players like Stewart and junior guard Chelsea Ayala can push the ball up the floor, but Oceanside was taken out of its rhythm a bit by Del Norte’s size and defensive prowess.
Postseason play will be foreign to Oceanside’s entire roster.
“I don’t worry about them being ready, because I know we’re always going to come out ready to play,” Finnegan said. “It’s more a situation of us being a little more patient in our offense and our shot selection. That’s something that we’ll work on in practice and get better at.”
Whether the Pirates go deep into the postseason or see their season end in the first round, Finnegan will be proud of the team’s dramatic turnaround — one born of resiliency.
“I’m thrilled,” Finnegan said. “For Victoria, Jessica and Shannice, they are the heart of the team. They have put in so much work over the four years that I’m extremely happy for them and the success that they’re having. They really deserve it.”