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Paul Wellman

In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion

Providence Hall Girls Basketball Team Heads to CIF Final


The high school basketball playoffs ended early and abruptly for every Santa Barbara team but one — the Providence Hall Lions. If you were not aware of the Lions’ success in the CIF Southern Section Girls Division 6 Championships, you are not alone. “It’s been kind of like ‘Providence Who?’” senior forward Faith Emerson said. “People might know we’re small and that we’re a start-up.”

On the basketball court, they have been a hurry-up. In their second year of CIF competition, the Lions will be playing for the championship on Saturday night against Orangewood Academy at the Mater Dei High gym in Santa Ana.

Providence Hall opened its doors in 2007, using rooms at the Notre Dame elementary school. Last fall, it established a campus next to the downtown Boys & Girls Club. With a coed enrollment of 70, the Christian-oriented school is among the smallest in the Southern Section. But athletics director Keith Luberto was bullish on girls basketball from the start, and he scheduled many of their games this season against larger schools.

Throughout the playoffs, the Lions have been kingly. With a smothering defense, they knocked out Newbury Park Adventist, 51-24; Immanuel Christian, 61-21; Los Angeles Adventist, 37-19; and Santa Maria Valley Christian, 70-43. They will take an 18-6 record into the final against Orangewood Academy, which is 24-5 and the top-seeded team in the division.

Orangewood’s Spartans will have the advantage of playing in their own backyard, but the Lions are not averse to traveling. Without a gym of their own, they head for the hills each school day to their practice location, the gym at St. Mary’s Seminary near Skofield Park. St. Mary’s is a site for spiritual retreats, an ideal place for the Providence Hall players to concentrate on basketball without distractions.

“We want to play God’s way — extremely hard, with focus, giving a full effort and supporting each other,” head coach Ariana Gnekow told her team at the beginning of the week.

Gnekow was a tenacious player herself for two legendary coaches — Jo Ann Reck at Santa Ynez High and Mark French at UCSB. She was a two-time league MVP at Santa Ynez, but her senior year ended sadly when she blew out her knee in the first game of the CIF playoffs.

“It humbled me and made me a lot stronger,” Gnekow said. She walked on at UCSB, with no guarantees she’d make the team, and she proved to be such an inspiration that French rewarded her with a full scholarship the rest of her Gaucho years.

Now she can experience the excitement of the CIF finals for the first time. “This is the farthest I’ve gone,” Gnekow said. “I never got past the second round [at Santa Ynez].”

The coach often dives into the action during practice. She finds herself amidst a formidable group of young women. Emerson, a senior, played basketball with the boys team during her first year. Her mother, Cara Emerson, was a standout player at Santa Barbara High and is Providence Hall’s assistant headmaster.

Three juniors carry the scoring load with Emerson. Sydney Hedges, a six-footer, scored 18 points in each of their last two playoff wins. Elizabeth Beebe and Lacey Gonzalez combined for 22 points against Valley Christian, as Providence Hall hit a season high. Senior Megan Hahs helped them control the boards.

“We attempt to give grace to the surrounding community,” Faith Emerson said. “We have no bullying, no cliques. That’s rare in high school.”

It is also rare to see a hometown team vie for a CIF basketball title. The last one to go all the way was the Santa Barbara High boys in 1991.

MARCH MADNESS: At least one Santa Barbara college basketball team will be dancing in mid March. Westmont’s women assured themselves a bid to the NAIA national tournament at Frankfort, Kentucky, by winning the regular-season championship of the Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC). The conference bestowed its top awards to Kirsten Moore (Coach of the Year) and junior forward Tugce Canitez (Player of the Year). To gain momentum for the nationals, the No. 5-ranked Warrior women will try to sweep the GSAC Tournament on their home floor (first round Wednesday, February 29; semifinals Friday, March 2; final Monday, March 5). … Westmont’s men, hoping for an NAIA bid of their own, open the conference tournament Thursday, March 1, at Azusa Pacific. … UCSB, with its new career scoring leader Orlando Johnson (1,710 points), closes out the regular season at the Thunderdome this week (versus Pacific on Thursday, March 1, and UC Davis on Saturday, March 3). Then it’s on to Anaheim, where the second-place Gauchos will aim for a third consecutive showdown against Long Beach State in the Big West Tournament. … UCSB’s women have won five of their last six games and could earn a conference tournament home game next Tuesday, March 6, if they upset Pacific and UC Davis on the road.

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