COACH: Elizabeth Tolleson, fourth season
LAST YEAR: 24-3 overall, 12-0 Western Athletic Conference (champion)
KEY RETURNERS: Jovanah Arrington, Tiana Barron, Shealyn Craven, Dayna Hansen, Danielle Jenkins, Kiara Job, Mele Tupouata
KEY LOSSES: Janel Ortega, Shantel Perez
KEY ADDITIONS: Ariyanna Cashen, Povai Fesili, Janae Jackson
When the defending Western Athletic Conference champions return five starters, it's hard for them to not be the overwhelming preseason favorite.
That's the case with the 2013-14 Patterson High girls basketball team.
Fourth-year coach Elizabeth Tolleson's squad that went 12-0 in league play a season ago returns nearly intact, making the Tigers an easy pick to repeat as WAC champions.
"Watching these girls come so far in the progress of their games is the most rewarding feeling a coach could have," said Tolleson. "The girls look forward to playing and the team loves basketball. If you come watch a game, you will see it in every play."
Three all-WAC selections — Jovanah Arrington, Shealyn Craven and Mele Tupouata — lead a talented and experienced group that, a year ago, earned the first conference title for Patterson since the 2009-10 season, and the first undefeated league campaign for the program since 1978.
Last season, Patterson advanced to the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs, riding a 13-game winning streak. The Tigers hung close with Placer High of Auburn for most of the contest, but ultimately the hometown Hillmen were too much for Patterson.
But here's the bad news for all the other girls hoops teams in the region: The Tigers will return their entire starting lineup and nearly all their significant players for the upcoming campaign.
"We haven't talked about goals thus far, but I know going farther then we did in the SJS tournament last season is definitely tangible," Tolleson said. "I know the seniors want to get after it because they don't have anymore years to try and do better — this is it."
Tolleson's teams possess a 21-3 record in league games in her past two years at the helm, and the Tigers are expected to add a lot more victories this season.
Juniors Arrington and Craven, and seniors Dayna Hansen, Kiara Job and Tupouata are returning starters, along with junior Tiana Barron and Danielle Jenkins who were key reserves last year.
Given the wealth of talent at several positions, Tolleson maintains that nobody is assured a starting spot at Patterson.
"Even though I have all five starters returning, that doesn't mean (the lineup) will stay that way. I've made it clear to the players that nobody has a guaranteed spot," Tolleson said. "Effort, hustle and hard work ethic all play a huge role in my decision."
Patterson graduated just two seniors from the 2012-13 team — Janel Ortega and Shantel Perez — leaving this year’s sophomores, juniors and seniors to assume an even bigger role this season.
Along with junior varsity player Ariyanna Cashen, the Tigers have also added two promising transfers.
Janae Jackson comes to Patterson after relocating from nationally-ranked St. Mary's High of Stockton, while Povai Fesili was a first-team all-Modesto Metro Conference selection at Modesto High.
"(Jackson) has recovered from a knee injury and is very eager to play her senior year at Patterson. She is a huge threat from the 3-point line," Tolleson said. "(Fesili) was a point guard for Modesto, but she can also play post. She's a very versatile player."
After relying for years on quickness to play an up-tempo game, the Tigers now have an abundance of size as one of their strong points.
"Our size is a huge asset for us this season," Tolleson said. "We can match up with or be bigger than some of our toughest preseason opponents this year."
The returning Tigers saw the summer as a prime opportunity to develop the tools to succeed this season, Tolleson said.
"Getting more experience playing together is such a beneficial factor for this upcoming year," Tolleson said. "It takes time to understand your teammates' game completely. Playing summer ball not only helps the team, but it helps each individual figure out their strengths and weaknesses."
And with most area teams operating on year-round schedules as they seek to reach the upper echelons of the sport, there is no chance to rest on reputation.
"We have hundreds of games together as a team, so we have an advantage of playing with each other and knowing our teammates," Tolleson said. "Some coaches take the little things like that for granted. But I know it's a necessity to have if you want to compete past league play."
Patterson opens the season at home at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, against Modesto’s Enochs High.
Contact Marc Aceves at 892-6187, ext. 28, or email@example.com.