FAIRFIELD — As the Armijo High girls basketball team prepares to take on McClymonds of Oakland, Wednesday, in the first round of the Northern California regionals, there’s little doubt that the Indians have gotten this far as a team.
At the center of that team is a core of players that has been together for four full seasons – and a little more.
Marshanique Hall, Justice Robinson-Kroon, Melaya Gaines and Daija Daniels joined the varsity squad as freshmen in head coach Christian Stoll’s second year on the job.
Those four will now lead the 13th-seeded Indians, who were knocked out of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs in the semifinals, into their latest NorCal run Wednesday with a 6 p.m., matchup with No. 4 seed and Oakland Section Champion McClymonds at Oakland Tech.
The journey from freshmen to three-time Monticello Empire League champions and three-time NorCal qualifiers has been a long one.
“For the four-year (players), we turned Armijo around,” said Hall, the point guard and undisputed floor general of the Indians. “But we started from (our) freshman year and we built to what we have established now.”
That couldn’t be more true.
In the last four seasons, the Indians have a combined record of 90-30 and they’re 34-6 in MEL play, including wins in their last 30 league games.
The previous best four-year stretch for the program was from the 1993-94 season through the 1996-97 season wherein the team went 78-38 and 42-14 in the MEL.
In Stoll’s five-season tenure, the Indians are 101-46 and 35-15 in league play.
In the five seasons prior to Stoll’s arrival, Armijo was 40-90 and 20-55. The team has also only had one other string of five straight winning seasons – from 1992-93 to 1996-97.
“Armijo’s girls basketball team was nothing basically, unheard of and everything else,” said Indians forward Melaya Gaines. “B ut these past four years that I’ve been here, we’ve been growing as a team and it’s been really exciting just to go from the bottom to the top.”
Gaines and the others haven’t just been playing together since they arrived at Armijo, but in youth basketball for several years before.
“It’s been great. I’ve been with these girls since I was 12 years old,” Gaines said. “Just to grow with them as one from nothing to something, it’s been great, just to put Armijo on the map together.”
Daniels, a guard who runs the offense when Hall is off the floor, said the work has been worth it.
“It’s been very fun. A lot of practice, a lot of hard work, dedication – the usual,” she said. “It’s like growing up together. (Playing) basketball together all the years, it’s really fun because you can say, ‘Oh, we started from here. Now we’re here.’ ”
The experience has been invaluable to all four.
“It’s meant so much. We’ve bonded so much, been through so much,” Robinson-Kroon said.
All four have undergone personal transformations in their time at Armijo.
“It’s changed me as a person,” Robinson-Kroon said. “When I first came out here, I wasn’t coachable at all. I had a horrible attitude, and I just wasn’t willing to learn. It took for my team and for my coach and for everybody else to believe in me, to believe in myself and to know what type of basketball player I was and my potential to come out and show who I really was.”
Seeing his players grow up has been rewarding for Stoll.
“I think most of it has been maturity as far as off-the-court stuff and becoming leaders,” he said. “The leadership on the court has been great to see them grow. . . . As far as maturity and seeing them grow up as girls into women and things like that has been pretty cool to see.”
Stoll knows how fortunate he is as a coach to have the group he has, now headed into its third straight state tournament.
“It’s been really special. I think it’s something rare to have this much experience on one team,” he said. “Not only the four seniors who have played four years, but four other girls that are seniors that – three of them have played four years in the program and S’ade (Ware) played three years in the program. You’re talking about . . . 31 years of experience in the program and a lot of those are varsity years.”
That experience becomes especially important now as the Indians prepare to take on the top teams in Northern California.
“It’s just been really special and I’m very fortunate to have these girls come in three or four years ago . . . and they’ve just been so consistent, working hard and every time you’re looking for answers you’ve got experience there to help you out,” Stoll said.
Looking back, the four four-year players said they didn’t necessarily expect to make three straight trips to NorCals, but that the potential was certainly there.
“Not three years in a row, but yeah,” Daniels said. “I wish we would have went farther, like Arco (Arena to play for a section championship), but still we’re still making it.”
For Robinson-Kroon, the whole thing is still setting in.
“I didn’t actually (expect it),” she said. “We’re proving everybody wrong, even ourselves.”
Gaines said this was the goal all along.
“This year I thought it was going to be a little rough losing two seniors that really made a difference in the past years,” she said. “I didn’t expect to get this far as we did with the team that we have, but we really worked hard every day since Day 1, so we worked our way to the top.”
Being leaders on a team with 18 players on the roster has been a major responsibility for the four, but one that they all readily take on now.
“It’s nice to be a leader, being a leader kind of helped to where we got to be three-time MEL champions,” Hall said.
“My sophomore and junior year, my coaches always said, ‘They listen to you, they look up to you, you’re the leader.’ I wasn’t mature enough to take on that role,” Robinson-Kroon said. “I didn’t want to take it on, that was too much in my hand and growing up and now becoming a senior, and doing what I have to do and (they) do listen to me . . . I don’t mind it, it’s kind of cool.”
Looking beyond this year, all four are glad they’ll leave a lasting legacy at Armijo.
“I can be like, ‘Oh, I was there, I was part of that, I did that,’ ” Daniels said.
Added Hall, “We broke (school) records for (re)peating and three-peating, because the girls had never done it. It’s a great accomplishment that many people don’t get the chance to get, but we got it.”
Gaines said she’s confident in the future of the program.
“I hope they just continue just to work hard,” she said. “With a coach like Stoll, they should be in good hands. If they just keep working every day once the season starts, they should be fine.”
Doing all this with close friends was probably the best part.
“To know that I can look back when I get older and be like, ‘I made history and I did something well,’ “ Robinson-Kroon said. ”That means a lot. And with people I love.”
Reach Mike Corpos at 427-6979 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mcorposdr.