One of the best things about being a coach at Connelly High School is you never know who might walk through the front door.
Because of Connelly’s well-established international exchange program, students arrive on campus from different corners of the world. Every once in a while, they bring a much-appreciated athletic skill to the all-girls’ Catholic college preparatory school in Anaheim.
The latest discovery is Deepali Ernest, a junior from India who stands 5 feet 11 and possesses a combination of height, slick ball handling and smoothness around the rim that’s rarely seen at a school as small as Connelly, which has a student body of approximately 200.
Connelly girls’ basketball coach Scott Sangren didn’t know much about Ernest’s competitive background when he first put her in a game, just that she had the size and skills that might help the team succeed.
Turns out, she had developed her basketball skills in the apartment complex in her native India. One thing Sangren didn’t realize right away, however, was Ernest had never played in an organized game.
“The first time the whistle blew she had no idea what it meant,” he says.
Ernest still managed to make five baskets on eight attempts and score 10 points in that first game. After that, she started to get more comfortable on both ends of the floor, grabbing 14 rebounds in her second game and 19 in her third. Five games into her competitive career, she finished with 22 points and 18 rebounds in a 42-31 win against St. Monica Academy.
“We have a good size and that’s our little advantage over people,” Sangren says.
Ernest, who averages 12.8 points and 13.6 rebounds, isn’t even the tallest player on the team. That distinction goes to 6-1 senior center Emilee Friend, who averages 6.8 points and 10.4 rebounds. She has totaled as much as 20 points and 18 rebounds in a game this season.
Sangren, who is 6-6, said Friend’s reach is nearly as long as his when both reach in the air.
The first time the whistle blew, she had no idea what it meant.
—Coach Scott Sangren
“I tell her, ‘You know, it’s almost impossible to shoot over that?’“ he says.
And then there’s the third captain on the team, 5-5 senior forward Medina Ali, who averaged 7.8 points and 10.2 rebounds last season but has been able to focus more on the offensive end with the addition of Ernest, allowing her to bump up her scoring average to 10.4.
Ernest, Friend and Ali are the main reasons the Koalas already had as many wins (12) through Jan. 22 as they combined for in the previous two seasons. The success of the team has just added to the excitement at Connelly, as the school this winter opened its first on-campus athletic facilities, a soccer field and softball diamond.
“We’re pretty pumped,” says Timmerie Henry, the school’s athletic director.
The basketball team still practices on outside courts in the offseason and plays its games about five miles away at American Sports Center in Anaheim. Henry says an on-campus gymnasium could be the next major project on the school’s agenda.
“I do think we’ll get a gym,” she says. “I don’t know the time schedule, but I do believe that will happen.”
When the school does, there’s a good chance someone special will walk through those front doors as well.