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March 27, 2023

Girls' NorCal D-III Basketball: Aptos rallies past Marin Catholic in 4th

APTOS — Aptos High head coach Stefan Hocom said his team has struggled to find a spark over the last couple weeks.

The Mariners might have finally found it on Wednesday night.

Down seven heading into the fourth quarter, No. 2 Aptos buckled down on defense and made just enough plays on offense to escape No. 15 Marin Catholic, 56-54, and advance to the quarterfinals of the CIF NorCal Division III playoffs.

“That was not pretty, but it was impressive because they were on their heels the entire time,” Hocom said. “They just decided that they were not going to lose.”

Aptos (26-4) forced Marin Catholic (24-8) into nine fourth-quarter turnovers, and sophomores Gabby Giuffre and Natalia Ackerman helped the Mariners wash the taste of last week’s Central Coast Section championship game loss from their mouths with clutch buckets down the stretch.

Giuffre had 10 of her game-high 21 points in the fourth quarter, and Ackerman added six, including the go-ahead bucket off an assist from senior forward Abbi Saxton with 1:14 left to play.

Ackerman also used her long 6-foot-1 frame to make a game-sealing, two-handed block on the Wildcats’ final shot with less than 15 seconds remaining.

“We wanted it,” Giuffre said. “We wanted to go farther than we did last year. It was all heart.”

The Mariners will host No. 7 Clovis High — a 59-57 winner over No. 10 Lathrop High in overtime — on Saturday at 6 p.m.

After failing to repeat as CCS D-III champs last week, Wednesday’s win serves as a bit of tangible success that Hocom hopes will get his team pumped heading into the next round.

Having a few days off to heal up and get over the flu that ravaged the team last week, also doesn’t hurt.

“We’ve been struggling a bit, but I just felt like if we can get this, we’ll have a little bit of a break,” Hocom said. “Everyone is at the tail end of their colds. I think that we’ll come back Saturday and play better. It’s a grind.”

Brooke Grialou (14), Sydney Politzer (13), Miranda Jacobson (13) and Erika Stromberg (12) all scored in double figures for Marin Catholic, which had a full week off since its loss in the semifinals of the North Coast Section Division IV playoffs.

The Wildcats looked rested and ready for everything the Mariners threw their way. They jumped out to a 10-2 lead in the first and withstood an Aptos run in the second to head into the locker room down 28-22.

An 11-0 run out of the intermission capped off with a spinning layup from Stromberg, put Marin Catholic up five midway through the third and forced Hocom to burn a timeout.

The Wildcats upped their lead to 10 late in the frame, but couldn’t hang on to the ball over the final eight minutes.

With their motion offense finally clicking and their shots falling, the Mariners were able to return to their press defense in the fourth. Their defensive pressure produced several of the Wildcats’ turnovers, including the final takeaway with 3.4 seconds remaining.

“We had some critical turnovers that hurt us down the stretch,” said Marin Catholic first-year head coach Ashley Saia. “We struggled to score in the fourth.”

Ackerman finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and four steals. Giuffre added five assists and a pair of steals to her line.

Sophomore guard Madison Stefanini hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers in the third to jolt the Mariners out of a shooting slump.

Aptos shot only 36.7 percent from the field, but its defense, led by juniors Hannah Hocom and Abby Pardue, made the difference in the closing minutes.

“It was all about how bad we wanted it,” Giuffre said. “We weren’t going to let them get an easy bucket.”

Despite being a young team with four juniors, five sophomores and a freshman, Aptos started the year with big expectations from both inside and outside of its own locker room after winning the program’s first CCS title since 1983 last season.

They were ranked in the top 20 in Northern California in the preseason, and have been ranked within the top 100 teams in the state by MaxPreps throughout the season.

Last year, the Mariners saw their season end in the first round of the NorCal playoffs in an upset against Moreau Catholic.

Hocom said Wednesday’s win is a benchmark worth celebrating.

“To tell the girls that we’re officially beyond the point that we were last year, that’s a good thing,” Hocom said. “There’s so much pressure on them, and there’s so many expectations…it’s nice to be able to tell them that we did something that we haven’t done before.”


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