Steve Zichichi could barely contain his enthusiasm and pride when the Healdsburg High girls basketball team easily defeated Piner High on Saturday night, 72-20. And he wasn’t the only one. “They were so emotional afterwards, and there were a lot of tears and hugging in the locker room,” said Zichichi the next morning.
For the first time since 2004, a Healdsburg girls basketball team claimed the league title. They got there despite several late season injuries, including one to junior star Hailey Webb, the team’s leading scorer: She was in a Jan. 27 auto accident that takes her out for at least six weeks, long past the inevitable league and California Interschoalstic Federation (CIF) division playoffs.
Another key player, Hannah Sellards, sprained her ankle on Thursday night in a 46-11 win over St. Vincent de Paul. So it was a depleted varsity squad that met Piner at home in Healdsburg on Feb. 4.
But as Coach Zichichi said, “The girls were able to get it done. It was huge.” Maddie Wagner took up the challenge of Webb’s absence and led scoring with 19 points, including five 3-pointers. Allie Espinoza had 14 points and 15 rebounds. Ruby Leffew scored 14, four on 3-pointers. And Itzel Ortiz had 10 points and six rebounds.
The final 72-20 score reflected the dominance the Lady Hounds exerted over their opponents throughout the season, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise to the coach or to the team. Zichichi, the former surgeon and Dry Creek winemaker who has coached the team since 2017, said he knew it was a special team from the start. “Seriously, from day one, the very first practice, I said, this is a special team. I said, we can do special things,” he recalled.
And from the start they did, taking on a rough preseason schedule that included bigger schools and long travel days, but resulted in an impressive 11-3 record, leading up to the first Redwood League match on Jan. 4 against Windsor.
They won that first Windsor game handily, 57-29, and swept through the league’s first half on fire. “Before League started, I was thinking, you know, we can do pretty well,” recalled Zichichi. “I was worried about Rancho and Windsor, and Santa Rosa for that matter. And then we ran through the first round and beat everybody bad. I think the closest game was like 25 points.” It was, a Jan. 11 55-30 win over Santa Rosa.
“But I knew the second go round was going to be harder,” Zichichi said. First team on the schedule for the second half was again Windsor, but this time the Jaguars were ready. Their 3-pointers were sinking, their rebounds were working, their passing game on target. The final score was almost a humiliation, 43-28.
“I knew there was a bad game on the horizon,” sighed Zichichi. “We couldn’t shoot, we just couldn’t shoot.” While the Jaguars were on a roll, the Greyhounds could only sink six out of 48 3-point attempts, not nearly enough in the current style of play.
The loss proved an anomaly, however, the kind of thing that happens once in a long season. The team finished the year as they began it, sweeping through the Redwood League with a series of big point-spread wins against Elsie Allen (57-38), Santa Rosa (54-20) and St. Vincent de Paul before the Piner win.
The season-ending victory sweep gives the Hounds first seed in the Redwood League playoffs, which began Tuesday night against Santa Rosa. Healdsburg won, 36-31, and will meet Windsor (who defeated Rancho Cotate that same night, 51-48) for the third time this season on Friday at home. The coach is still only cautiously optimistic that they can sweep the playoffs, too, as they are still without their leading player—Hailey Webb.
But on Monday, the coaches met to select the all-league players, and Webb was named league co-MVP. In fact, the Greyhounds cleaned up at the league coach’s meeting, with six players recognized for their play: Ashley Behrens won Defensive Player of the Year, Allie Espinoza and Itzel Ortiz were named to the first team, Maddie Wagner to the second team, with Ruby Leffew receiving an honorable mention.
And to no one’s surprise, Steve Zichichi was named Coach of the Year.
The team motto is “Team First,” said Zichichi, and their play reflected the generous awareness that characterizes team play. “It’s just a great team. They’re talented, but none of them have egos, you know. We always look for the open player, the best shot.”
Team First. And now there’s a pennant to prove it hanging at Smith Robinson Gym. The first since 2004.
The boys are also headed to league playoffs, finishing in second place with a 5-3 record behind 8-0 Ukiah. But they capped their season on Feb. 3 with a thrilling near-miss against Ukiah, 48-46—only a single basket separating the Greyhounds from an upset. In fact, the on-fire Greyhounds built up a 20-point first half lead, but it wasn’t quite enough to extinguish the Wildcats, who made up more than the difference before the final buzzer.
The boys’ first playoff game was Wednesday this week against Rancho Cotate (results too late for press time), who they defeated 47-44 on Jan. 28. If they win that one, the Greyhounds will probably face Ukiah once again for the championship on Saturday.
Friday’s girl basketball playoff final against Windsor starts at 7pm at Smith Robinson Gym on the Healdsburg High School campus.