Even amid a pandemic, Cary Nerelli's job leading the Hancock College women's basketball team should be at least a little easier in 2021 than it was during the 2019-20 season.
During the previous campaign, Nerelli's Bulldogs willed themselves to a playoff appearance despite going most of the season with just six players. The Bulldogs, in fact, had just five healthy players in at least one instance.
Despite all that, Hancock finished 14-16 and even won a SoCal Regional playoff game at Long Beach. The Bulldogs' season ended with a 73-62 loss at Ventura in the playoffs.
The Bulldogs lose two key pieces from last year's squad with Sarah Gudeman and Milan McGary having graduated. Reserve Kelsie Prado, who provided key minutes last year, has also moved on.
"We're going to be pretty solid," Nerelli said about his current group. "We have three returners from last year and Danielle Morgan joining them. So we have four returners who all know the system well and four of them were all-conference players. We have a solid core and we brought in a talented group of freshmen who just need to learn the system."
The 'Dogs get a big boost with the return of Morgan, a Lompoc High grad who starred for the Bulldogs as a freshman in 2018-19 but missed all of last season with a torn labrum.
The Bulldogs also have Alijah Paquet, Aryana Gonzales and Jayci Bayne back. Those three started just about every game last season.
And, thankfully, the Bulldogs actually have some depth this year. Nerelli says his rotation will likely consist of nine players.
"As soon as the freshmen get incorporated into the system and we improve our defense a little bit, I think we're going to be really, really competitive," Nerelli said.
Paquet, Bayne and Morgan could also be back for the 2021-22 season that runs later this year, Nerelli said. California junior college athletes have been granted extra eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the top newcomers for the Bulldogs this year are Kayla Taylor, a 6-foot freshman from Lompoc High, Cabrillo grad Thea Reagan and former Righetti standout Mishila Garcia.
The 'Dogs also have out-of-area talent coming in with the additions of Porterville High grad Jewelia Maniss and Jessika Earley, a 5-7 forward out of Barstow.
Bayne, a former Arroyo Grande High standout, started all 30 games last year and led the team in scoring at 17.7 points per game, making 40.4% of her shots. Paquet, the former Righetti sharpshooter, was second on the team with 16.2 points per game, making 29 starts.
Gonzales added 13.3 points and a team-high 3.6 assists per game last year as a freshman. Gonzales, a Mission Prep grad, is set to study engineering after graduating from Hancock this spring, Nerelli said.
The Bulldogs lose McGary and her 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Gudeman started all 30 games last year and averaged 4.4 points and a team-best 8.2 rebounds per game. Gudeman is now at the University of Maine, Fort Kent.
Morgan led Hancock in scoring as a freshman in the 2018-19 season. She averaged 15.8 points on 42 percent shooting from the field. She added 7.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists that year as Hancock went 10-15.
The Bulldogs have nine games on the schedule. They tip-off the season Friday at home vs. Cuesta at 3 p.m. Then, on March 11, they host Bakersfield at 3 p.m. They then play at Bakersfield on March 12, host College of the Sequoias on March 19 and play COS in Visalia on March 20. There's then a home-and-home series vs. Taft on March 25 and 26 and a two-game set against Antelope Valley scheduled for April 1 and 2.
Nerelli said the team's conditioning hasn't reached its full potential with a disrupted offseason program amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our conditioning is a little off, to be honest," Nerelii said. "We haven't been able to get any 5-on-5 going because of the pandemic. We've been on the court for quite awhile, a few weeks. We're rounding into shape. The freshmen learning the system offensively and defensively has taken some time. We're learning, but overall, I think we can come out and play a game tomorrow and be competitive."
Hancock College athletic director Kim Ensing said the Bulldogs are able to have a season this school year thanks to a robust testing regimen where players and coaches test three times a week. Ensing also noted that no fans will be allowed at athletic events for the "foreseeable future."
Most home Hancock athletic events will be streamed online at https://athletics.hancockcollege.edu/video/streaming.