Watsonville High senior Xitlali Montesino, left, earned All-PCAL Gabilan Division First Team honors this season. (Raul Ebio -The Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE— The Watsonville High girls’ basketball team has not played a game this season with the entirety of their roster – and therefore have yet to reach their full potential.

The Wildcatz have plenty of numbers with 18 players on the roster, but the temporary void left by several of their stars created the opportunity for some of the younger players to step up.

“We have been trying to get everybody on the same page,” said Watsonville coach Zachary Cook. “We’ve been without our six-foot-three post player (Kaylani Trout-Lacy) all preseason and just lost one of our top defenders in Nancy Morado.”

Despite the turbulent roster changes to start the season, the Wildcatz have started the season with a 6-7 overall record. They dropped their preseason finale in a 45-34 loss to Alisal in the Lady Shark Shootout third place game Dec. 30. 

Watsonville will now enter its first season competing in the top-tier Gabilan Division of the Pacific Coast Athletic League. They moved up a division after finishing second with a 7-3 record in the Mission Division in 2021-22.

“I thought it was a great call,” Cook said. “In the league we were in, it was pretty much us against Alisal who were neck-and-neck challenging for the league.”

Last season, both Watsonville and Alisal were runner-up behind Mission Division champion Stevenson, which went 10-0 but didn’t get bumped up after losing several talented seniors due to graduation.

“We are right where we are needing to be,” Cook said. “Our schedule isn’t the easiest, but it’s built that way so we can try and get used to the competitiveness of the Gabilan Division.”

Following a narrow 50-49 loss against Soquel to open the preseason, the ‘Catz won four-straight including an impressive 50-3 blowout against Pajaro Valley.

Since then they’ve won just two of their last eight games.

“I think the one game that we will regret forever was Hollister,” said senior shooting guard Nancy Morado. “We know we could have beat them, but on the court you could see we just relied on one person when we could all work together.”

Senior small forward Xitlali Montesino had to step up this season to fill the roles of her injured teammates, including Morado.

Montesino leads the team with 14.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 4.7 steals per game, and her field goal percentage is at 51%.

Montesino is trying to keep her team afloat with a sub .500 record until players like Morado and 6 foot, 3 inch center Kaylani Trout-Lacy are able to return.

“This year I’ve been becoming a leader and I’ve been struggling a lot with my team, mainly emphasizing on my tone,” Montesino said. “But I also think it’s going good because I’ve created a bond with the team.”

Help is on the way, as Morado’s knee injury is about a week away from being fully healed and Trout-lacy has already returned to practice.

Trout-lacy dominated last season by averaging a team-high 13.4 points per game on 53% shooting in addition to 9.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. 

Her presence will be well received among a team who has shown flashes of their potential, yet have recently been struggling.

“I think she will have a tremendous impact actually,” Cook said. “Kaylani is pretty much quadruple-teamed every night. Other girls on the team definitely try and step up and provide that extra support. But having a post presence like Kaylani will just open things up way more.”

Injuries have not stopped some of Watsonvile’s primary players from contributing while watching film or cheering their teammates on.

The acquisition of players like Trout-Lacy will have a substantial impact, however, the Wildcatz know what they have to improve upon to make any real noise in the Gabilan Division.

“I think collectively we have had poor communication, knowing the value each one of our teammates has and can contribute,” Morado said. 

Players across the roster have had the opportunity to step up and contribute during the first stretch of the season.

Consequently, the ‘Catz are deeper and more prepared for later in the season with the entire team more experienced. One player in particular has seized the moment.

“Iliana Garcia kind of stepped up out of nowhere really,” Cook said. “She has been hitting a lot of wide open and contested threes. She hit a game-winner.”

The Wildcatz are content where they are considering some players caught the injury bug, inconsistent communication and being moved up an entire division.

Watsonville will battle against Alisal (8-2), Carmel (6-4), Hollister (6-3), North Salinas (9-2) and Salinas (7-3) for a shot at the Gabilan Division crown.

They tip off league play at home against North Salinas (9-2) on Tuesday at 7pm.

“What impresses me is where we’re at, we are really good,” said Cook. “But we have yet to touch all of our potential. We’re getting that respect but they still haven’t hit their peak.”

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