First published in the Dec. 9 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
She was hired during the pandemic, had to wait months for an in-person meeting with her players and, when they finally gathered, some of their first words she heard were less than inspiring.
“Don’t get high expectations,” said the not-to-be-named player to new San Marino High School girls’ basketball coach Liz Reuter. “Because we are not very good.”
Sixteen months have passed and both of those elements have changed dramatically. Reuter always had expectations and the Titans are already quite good.
San Marino won its first five games of the season and now have a 5-2 record following two tough tournament losses.
Now, Reuter is a believer and her players are following suit.
“Even though it is early, we have found a lot of success and improvement,” said Reuter. “We are finding our identity and becoming the type of team we want to be. This team is very aggressive and they are good at speeding up the game and making the opponents uncomfortable. We are facing better and better teams. We have made a great effort in every game and are still improving.”
Reuter said she had “no idea” when the Titans last won their first five games to open a season “and nobody else seems to know, either.” She was, however, quite certain that “we have had to earn every point, rebound and defensive stop. We are prepared for anything that comes our way.”
One thing that has definitely come San Marino’s way is respect. The Titans were ranked No. 8 in the CIF-SS Division 5AA opening poll.
“It’s exciting to see that they are noticing,” said Reuter in her typically humble fashion.
Reuter was also excited to introduce her players to the community and chose “youngest to eldest” as her method. That placed freshman forward Kailey Woo first on the list.
“Kailey brings a lot of basketball experience to the team,” Reuter said. “She is a natural scorer for us and she is really learning the game. Kailey can play the game very fast and is an excellent defensive player. She has to guard 17- and 18-year-olds and that can be tough for a 14-year-old. But she has excellent basketball instincts.”
Sophomore point guard Chloe Lin is back for her second year on the varsity squad.
“Chloe showed a lot of growth over the summer,” Reuter exclaimed. “It has been great to see her be more aggressive. Chloe brings a lot of intensity off the bench for us, especially on defense.”
The daughter of Titan boys’ varsity basketball coach Mihail Papadopulos, sophomore Sophia Papadopulos has the sport in her blood.
“She really likes to get out there and play hard,” Reuter said. Players on the opposing team get very frustrated when Sophia defends them. She is getting so much better when deciding whether to shoot or pass the ball when she drives to the basket, but where she impacts the game is on defense. She is a really tough girl.”
The same could be said of fellow sophomore Malia Yu, who has been scoring at a clip of 11 points per game during the young season. But the guard is much more than just an offensive threat as Yu also paces the squad in steals with six per outing.
“Malia uses her long arms at the top of our defense and can really control the flow of the game,” Reuther said. “She is a very versatile, dependable player.”
Junior forward Sophia Walcha has made an immediate impact during her first varsity campaign.
“Sophia does some really good things for us,” said Reuter. “She is very tough inside and isn’t afraid to mix it up. Sophia is getting better every day and is also a great teammate. She will get some good minutes for us and be an impact player.”
Junior guard Paris Chan, a third-year varsity player, is a student of the game.
“Paris wants to be a good player and she isn’t afraid to ask what she needs to do to improve,” Reuter said. “I really admire that because sometimes the answers to those questions are tough to hear. Paris is super-aggressive and her outstanding speed causes a lot of problems for our opponents. She is always asking how she can improve and is a really good teammate.”
Similar to Chan, junior guard Nora Chang is in her third season on the varsity squad.
“Nora looks like she is a quiet, polite girl but I always tell everyone on the team that those are the ones you have to worry about,” Reuter said with a huge laugh. “She is not afraid to go up against the bigger girls and she fights for every possession. Nora has improved a ton and is helping us in the games.”
Junior forward Gianna Karkafi made such an impression during her second year on the varsity squad her teammates selected her as one of three co-captains.
“Gianna is a very important part of our program,” said Reuter. “She really affects our team through her and getting into the paint. We are looking to refine her skills. Gianna gets excited when the other team has post players that she can guard. She had a huge summer for us and continues to work hard. Gianna is going to play big part on the team this season and moving forward.”
Senior guard Amber Tang didn’t play during San Marino’s abbreviated 2020-21 season that was actually played in the summer of 2021 due to the pandemic.
“Amber came out and was ready to go to work right away,” Reuter explained. “Having a new coach and being a year removed from the team made the first two weeks tough, but she is very steady. You know what you are going to get from her. Amber can hit the open shot and she is an excellent defender.”
Senior guard Yani Peng also took a year off.
“It’s great to have her back,” Reuter said. “She is a really talented ballhandler who is not afraid to have the game in her hands. She is super-fast and really good at reading what the player she is guarding is going to do. She makes playing defense look simple. Yani is tough and I don’t worry about her having the ball in her hands at all.”
Elaine Wu comes to the squad fresh off an exceptionally successful tennis season that saw the senior lead the Titans to Rio Hondo League and CIF divisional championships. Wu also took last year off from basketball.
“I was bummed when she didn’t play last year and very happy this year when I saw her at the sign-up meeting,” said Reuter. “Even though she has been away from the game for a while, I am comfortable throwing her out there because she is a competitor. Elaine has a tremendous instinct for the game of basketball. I am really impressed with her and am excited to see what she can do now that she is with the team full-time.”
Senior forward Ada Zhang also took last year off but has made a quick return to the lineup.
“Ada gives other teams a lot of trouble,” Reuter explained. “She is not afraid to use her size and ability and she goes out of her way to make contact. Ada has an instinct to be tough. She played some big minutes in our recent tournament. When she guards someone, they don’t want the ball and that is a very rare trait.”
Senior guard Maddie Emmons was also named a co-captain for her third season on the varsity squad.
“She has grown up right before my eyes,” Reuter said. “She has become more confident and knows what she can do. Maddie is asked to guard the best or second-best player on the opposing team and is a very versatile player. Maddie averages five steals a game. She is well-rounded at the offensive end and doesn’t shy away from the big shot. She is a quiet leader but her teammates really respect her.”
Senior point guard Elaina Lee is the squad’s third co-captain.
“It is hard to put into words what Elaina means to this team,” Reuter said. “She does everything, from helping to keep the team organized to talking to the players during halftime. I don’t think that even Elaina knows how much she does for this team but her intensity has rubbed off on her other teammates. She picks them up when they are down and the other girls are lucky to be her teammate. Elaina would run through a wall for this team.”
Reuter would love to see the squad run through their Rio Hondo League opponents. South Pasadena finished on the top of the heap during the summer season but Reuter thinks there are a host of legitimate contenders.
“I expect some really tough competition,” the coach explained. “South Pasadena is bringing back a lot of starters and La Cañada and Temple City are also very strong.
“Our goal is to find a way to beat the better teams and I believe our confidence will be the difference.”