SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The Aptos High Mariners seem to have picked up right where they left off last season.

With what they have back, it is no surprise.

The Mariners have nine holdovers from a squad that stunned the Central Coast Section en route to the program’s first section title since 1983.

Their leading scorers and starting guards, junior Hannah Hocom and sophomore Gabby Giuffre, are back and their two best bigs, sophomore Natalia Ackerman and senior Abbi Saxton, also return for fourth-year head coach Stefan Hocom – Hannah’s father.

The return and continued improvement from the aforementioned quartet was somewhat expected. But the boost from the other players on this year’s 11-player roster has been a nice surprise, which has lifted the Mariners to yet another level.

Junior wing Abby Pardue has upped her efficiency from deep and taken over as a captain. And twin sisters Emma and Madison Stefanini have made all-around leaps in their game, taking up the minutes left vacant by sparkplug Teal Maixner, who was integral in the Mariners’ run to the CCS D-III title as a senior last season.

“We have so many weapons,” Ackerman said. “Everyone comes off the bench and is ready to go in. They all have that confidence. There’s no fear.”

Ackerman might be the most improved of all. Last year, the 6-foot-1 forward was primarily used for defense and rebounding but this season she is leading Aptos in points, rebounds, steals and blocks per game.

Giuffre, too, has added to her game. Her passing is better and she is also more effective from 3-point range.

The duo might have been a bit timid as freshman last campaign but they are certainly not deer in the headlights this season.

“They’re over it,” coach Hocom said of Ackerman and Giuffre. “They’re like, ‘OK, I’m here and I belong. I’m going to show what I can do.’”

Aptos started the season ranked 20th in Northern California by Sports Stars Magazine and its only slip-up came against CCS D-II champion Presentation. Other than that game, the Mariners have beaten their opponents by double digits in all of their wins with their balanced scoring, which has taken the pressure off of Hocom.

As a sophomore, the sharpshooter was spectacular, hitting 72 3-pointers and averaging 15.1 points per game. But the Mariners’ offense was often feast or famine depending on her performance.

With Ackerman, Giuffre, Pardue and the Stefanini sisters’ upgrades, however, that is no longer the case.

“Pretty much everyone on our team can hit a 3, pass and dribble,” Pardue said. “Plus, everyone is really supportive of each other. That helps us a lot to get the confidence up. Every time you hit a shot you hear the bench go crazy.”

With all of the improvement to the returning talent, the Mariners figure to be the favorites to win the league championship a season after finishing runner-up.

Aptos has not won a league title since the 2000-01 season.

Reigning Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League champion Soquel High graduated only four players but two of them, Michaela Thornton and Nayeli Rodriguez, shared the league’s Most Valuable Player honor last season.

Still, the Knights figure to be in the title conversation with a tough bunch featuring forward Mckenzie Duran and center Mckenna Finch, both of who are juniors.

Scotts Valley High finished third last season but the Falcons also lost two big contributors in forwards Sam Boyle and Casson Rasmussen. The keys to a program that dominated the SCCAL for three straight seasons before last year seem to be in the hands of sophomore forward Elle Giguiere.

St. Francis High took fourth last season and returns plenty from a team that advanced to the program’s fourth CCS D-V championship game in the last five years.

“I’d love to get back there again and I think the girls have the expectations and goal set of getting there,” said St. Francis second-year head coach Meghan Garcia.

Senior guard Janiya Sevilla, who paced the Sharks in scoring last season with 15.2 points per game, leads a strong group of six seniors that also includes speedy guard Chloe Deleisseguess and 5-foot-10 bigs Meghan Clifton and Samantha Castro.

Castro, Garcia said, has impressed through the Sharks’ 3-1 start to the year.

“Earlier this year she was kind of like Bambi — she was learning how to walk almost,” the coach said. “She’s finally getting used to the game. She’s finally understanding how tall she is and where she fits on the floor.”

Junior Janessa Yniguez is the team’s relentless point guard that specializes on defense but can also go off for 20 points on any given night.

The talent is there but the numbers are lacking for St. Francis, which only has eight players on its roster.

“The numbers are something that we can’t change and the girls have accepted that — it’s been a lot of conditioning, hydrating and trying to stay healthy,” Garcia said. “The good thing is our seniors are really pushing everyone on the team to be great this season.”

Garcia said there’s no hiding that Aptos will be expected to win the SCCAL title this season.

That won’t stop her team or the five others from trying to knock them off.

“I think everyone knows that Aptos will be the favorite but my girls, we’re fighting every day,” Garcia said. “My girls are really tight-knit and they’re not going to back down from the challenge.”

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