Eagles exceeding expectations

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos High’s Mahika Gupta puts up a shot against the Spartans’ Stephanie Evanson in last week’s game.

The Los Altos High girls basketball team is off to its best start in more than a decade – and not because the Eagles have played a soft schedule.

Their 5-0 record includes wins over Palo Alto and Mountain View, which both play in the upper division of the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League, and an Aragon squad that reached the Central Coast Section Division II final last winter.

While coach Jaclyn Brode entered this season expecting her team to be better than last year’s version, which finished 12-13, she didn’t envision starting this fast.

“I’m a little surprised myself,” said Brode, in her sixth season as coach. “I’m encouraged. I like this group – they play hard together and they like to compete. We have a different level of skill and confidence. This team could be special.”

All-league post player Mahika Gupta sees that, too.

“I knew we had talent – it was just a matter of how well we would work together,” said the team’s lone senior. “What’s surprised me the most is that everyone gives 100 percent to every game, every move and every play.”

That kind of effort helped the Eagles stun Palo Alto and Aragon on the road the second week of the season. Down 11 points in the third quarter at Paly, Los Altos surged ahead with a 19-2 run.

Although that marked the Eagles’ first victory over the Vikings in five tries under Brode, the coach was even more impressed with the win at Aragon two days later.

“No one in the gym thought we had a chance,” Brode said of the Nov. 30 contest. “They’re bigger, faster and jump higher, and they press all game. In years past, we would have been down 30 before we knew what hit us.”

Los Altos jumped to a 24-13 lead in the first quarter by breaking the press and fended off a late run by the Dons to prevail 63-58.

“It was our scariest game so far,” said Gupta, who led all scorers with 24 points. “The lead went from 13 to 5, but we kept it together toward the end.”

Turnovers have plagued the Eagles in recent years – especially against pressure – but not so much this season. Brode credits the improvement to being able to play three ballhandlers together: guards Jamie Baum, Mone Sekiguchi and Aliyah McPherson.

“That’s probably more on the floor than we’ve ever had,” she said. “(Opponents) can’t just trap one and we fall apart.”

Sophomore Baum remains the Eagles’ lead ballhandler, starting at point guard for the second season. She dished out three assists against Aragon and committed only one turnover in Saturday’s 44-23 trouncing of Independence at the Leland Shootout.

Baum is the team’s top scorer, averaging 14.2 points per game. She scored a season-high 21 points in Los Altos’ 51-37 home win over rival Mountain View Dec. 4. The all-leaguer is also tasked with defending the opponent’s best guard.

“Jamie’s a smart player and now she has experience under her belt,” Brode said.

Baum and Gupta barely come off the court. Gupta – Los Altos’ leading scorer and rebounder last season – has verbally committed to Colby College in Maine. She is averaging 13.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game this season.

“Mahika works hard,” Brode said. “She grinds.”

The coach also praised Sekiguchi; she sees a lot of potential in the sophomore.

“Mone has the tools to do it and the skills – she’s extremely quick,” Brode said.

Sekiguchi, who missed the Aragon game with a hand injury, averages 6.5 points per game.

Sekiguchi, Gupta and Baum are among the team’s six returning players, joining juniors Evelyn Baher-Murphy, Nicole Player and Annabel Flint.

The rest of the roster comprises seven members of last season’s undefeated junior-varsity squad – juniors Rachel Barkan, Arabella Boljonis, Olivia Cairns, Alyssa Hamamoto and Anthea Meng, plus sophomores Maura Kelleher and McPherson – along with freshman Abigail Lu.

McPherson, last year’s JV league MVP, tops the team in steals (16) and is averaging 7.6 points per game.

“Aliyah has the confidence to take it to the basket,” Brode said, “and I think her outside shot can develop and catch people.”

The Eagles hope no one will catch them in the SCVAL El Camino Division – they are slated to tip off league play 6:30 p.m. Jan. 4 against visiting Gunn – but Brode expects a tough challenge from reigning champ Lynbrook.

“They went 11-1 last year, and I expect them to be as strong – if not stronger – this year,” she said. “But we should be competing for (first). ... I think we’ll embrace the challenge.”

So does Gupta.

“Lynbrook beat us twice last year, once in overtime, but we’ve improved a lot this year,” she said. “They’re going to have to deal with us.”

Los Altos has two non-league home games set for this week: 6 p.m. Thursday against Cupertino and 5 p.m. Saturday versus Dixon.

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