APTOS—Natalia Ackerman knows what it’s like to hoist a Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League and Central Coast Section Division III basketball title in a single season.
But that was so last season.
The 6-foot-1 Aptos High senior forward has her eyes set on something bigger for the trophy case. This year she’s on a mission to win the league’s most coveted award.
“I really want to get M.V.P. (most valuable player),” Ackerman said. “I’m striving so hard for that.”
Last season, Mckenzie Duran-Gonzalez took home that piece of hardware for Soquel High, which defeated the Mariners in their second league meeting to split the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League crown.
Ackerman is making an early case as the league’s best player thus far, averaging a double-double—18.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game—in 13 games, according to the stats on the Max-Preps website.
Aptos first-year head coach Bruce Funk said the only time Ackerman isn’t putting up those kinds of numbers is when she doesn’t get very much playing time.
“When she’s in practice and in the game, she plays really hard and that’s important in terms of leadership through action,” Funk said. “When we have big games she plays really big.”
Ackerman has made 66 percent (100-of-151) of her shot attempts. She also has 41 assists, 36 steals and 31 blocks.
Funk said he broke down some footage from the previous season and noticed some major improved play from Ackerman.
The Mariners are missing five seniors from last year’s group, including Hannah Hocom, who was named to the All-SCCAL First-Team and currently plays at New York University.
A majority of the basketball team is returning, however, including all-league first team players Gabby Giuffre and Ackerman, both of whom recently signed to play basketball at NCAA Division I schools.
Ackerman will take her talents to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, while Giuffre will travel further south to play at the University of San Diego.
Giuffre said the team will benefit from having a large pool of returning players from last year’s squad.
“The chemistry on and off the court is constantly getting better,” Giuffre said. “We’re starting to really figure out how to help each other succeed in the game. It’s really working out well.”
Giuffre is surrounded by a set of sisters in the starting lineup. Seniors Madison and Emma Stefanini are this year’s starting guards, while newcomer sophomore Jasmine Ackerman, Natalia’s sister, took over the wing position.
“It’s my favorite thing, ever. I love having my sister on the team,” Natalia said. “We’re always looking out for each other.”
Funk said the twin sisters have been playing at an exceptionally high level and he’s had the option to put Jasmine all over the court.
“(Jasmine) plays inside, she plays outside and sometimes she’s a rebounder, she’s a scorer…and she’s always one of our best defenders,” Funk said.
Funk replaced Chris Grieves, who coached one season for the Mariners. He will also be the program’s third coach in as many seasons.
Grieves last season led Aptos to a 23-7 overall record and 9-1 standing in league play, which included an SCCAL Tournament title after tying Soquel for the regular-season crown.
Grieves, who was awarded the league’s Coach of the Year, guided the Mariners to the Central Coast Section Division III championship and a CIF D-II state appearance.
Apart from coaching a set of sisters, Bruce brought along his brother, Chris, to be an assistant coach.
“We scout games together and review tape together,” Funk said. “It’s been nice. It’s great to have another teacher on the court.”
Funk said they’ve progressed steadily, especially after some of the girls made the transition from a CIF state title run in volleyball during the fall to what they hope is a championship basketball season.
Ackerman said the key this season will be continued success in practice and getting used to the new systems put in place by the coaching staff.
“It’s hard to learn them but we’re all finally at this point been able to put it all together,” Ackerman said.
Funk is a new coach in the SCCAL but he said he’s aware they still have to bring their “A” game on any given night.
“It’s really on our team to do what we’re capable of doing,” Funk said.
The Mariners should know exactly what they’re going up against as SCCAL action begins today at home against league rival Soquel (2-4) with tipoff slated for 5:30 p.m.
The Knights lost their MVP, Duran-Gonzalez, but they’ll have senior Renee Parker leading the charge. They also saw coach Tyler Stewart replace Tom Curtiss, who coached just one season with the program.
Curtiss finished with a 17-10 overall record and he went 9-1 in league play, which landed Soquel a trip to the CCS D-III playoffs.
The Mariners will also square off against San Lorenzo Valley High (1-5), Harbor High (2-6), Scotts Valley High (6-8) and Santa Cruz High (10-3) for a shot at this year’s league title.
Giuffre said the goal is to repeat what they did last season but go even farther in the CIF NorCal playoffs, which means taking care of business in league first.
“Just taking it game by game and making sure we’re winning the ones we need to,” Giuffre said.
Editor’s Note:This article will be published in the Jan. 10 edition of The Pajaronian.