In Nevada County prep sports there has been a countless number of female athletes who have left their mark either on a court, in a pool, on a track or on a field.
Girls sports often garner as much attention as boys sports in our community and have a history steeped in success.
Today we look at five of Nevada County’s top female athletes since Title IX was instituted 41 years ago. The following athletes are presented in no particular order, and each individual was chosen based on a combination of outstanding achievement and recommendation by school athletic departments and community members.
Michelle St. Clair, a 1997 Bear River graduate and basketball phenom, will always be remembered as one of the elite Lady Bruins of all-time from when the program captured eight Sac-Joaquin Section titles and three Nor Cal championships during the 1990s.
“(St. Clair) was a fierce competitor,” said Bear River basketball coach Duwaine Ganskie. “As a coach you just let her play. She was a player from sixth or seventh grade and made it obvious she was one of the best in the county when she joined the team as a freshmen and was pushing kids for playing time.”
Leading her squad to back-to-back Nor Cal championship game appearances in 1996 and 1997, St. Clair’s team defeated St. Ignatius for the Nor Cal title in 1996 to advance to the CIF state D-III championship game where it lost to Bishop Montgomery to finish the season with a record of 34-2.
“Bear River was such a blast,” said St. Clair. “I’m definitely grateful for the years being coached by Duwaine Ganskie. He’s a great mentor who cared as a coach and a friend. Everything helps when you’re in a program like that.”
Through all the section and NorCal runs, St. Clair continued to mold herself and her abilities on the basketball court.
“(St. Clair) made herself a more complete player her senior season,” Ganskie said. “She was able to get everyone else involved. I feel 1997 was our best team ever even though we didn’t make it to the championship. We were hit with the flu and just didn’t have the same energy.”
In 1994, St. Clair joined the team as a freshman and was part of another championship run as the Lady Bruins won the Nor Cal tile defeating Campolindo, but lost to St. Bernard in the state title.
“(St. Clair) might be the only Bear River player to play varsity all four years, definitely one of the few,” added Ganskie. “In 1996 she was the CAL-HI Sports magazine player of the year. In 1997 she was the Sac Bee’s player of the year. She’s Bear River’s all-time leading scorer and holds the state record for most games played. For Bear River’s 25 year anniversary she was inducted into the inaugural Hall of Fame.”
She was also the recipient of the Most Distinguished Player Award in her final season, an achievement plaque commemorating her personal dedication and improved qualities.
St. Clair never felt intimidated being a young freshmen on team full of varsity level talent.
“The way we played together (the older girls) made me feel part of the team,” St. Clair said.
While she played in junior high at Magnolia her passion for basketball led her to create big dreams of playing at the collegiate level with a full ride scholarship. She firmly believes the camaraderie at Bear River helped her attain those ambitions.
“In the seventh grade I made it my goal to get a full-ride scholarship,” said St. Clair. “The high school bond we had was unlike anywhere else. I played with some of the same people almost my whole life.”
With an athletic scholarship to Sacramento State University, St. Clair continued her career at the collegiate level. The shooting guard was named to the Big Sky Conference’s all-league first team in 2001 during her senior season where she posted averages of 15.8 points (second best in conference), 2.96 3-pointers and 1.77 steals per game. St. Clair drained an astounding 77 shots from beyond the arc to break the Big Sky single-season record of 75, including the conference single-game record with nine 3-pointers against UC Riverside. Her 175 career 3-pointers is the third-best mark in conference history and a school record. She also tied for second in free throw percentage converting 77.7 percent of her foul shots.
St. Clair graduated with a degree in Kinesiology in 2002 and currently plays basketball in the Nevada County Adult Sports Association league.
“She’s definitely established herself as one of the greatest athletes in the county,” Ganskie said. “Now she’s graduated and raising a family with three kids, all girls.”
“I’m starting my own team,” added St. Clair.
Ali Daley, a 2005 Nevada Union graduate and dual athlete, played both basketball and volleyball for the Lady Miners, earning Metro League championships in both sports and two consecutive NorCal titles in volleyball. Of the school’s seven Sac-Joaquin Section D-I volleyball titles, Daley was directly part of three of them.
“Daley had a fabulous career,” said Daley’s co-head volleyball coach Bob Rodgers. “We always went into matches very confident. She always wanted the set in close matches.”
In her junior year of volleyball (2003) NU won the NorCal D-I tournament and lost the CIF state D-I championship to Los Alamitos, 3-1. In that match Daley tallied 14 kills earning all-tournament team honors, All-American honors and named to the Prep Volleyball Top-15 list.
“It’s a game of mistakes,” Rodgers. “You have to be able to shake them off and keep playing. (Daley) was driven to be successful. She was a very good team player.”
The following year she led the Lady Miners back to the state championship where they fell just short once again, 3-1 to Mira Costa, where she slammed 20 kills and received all-tournament honors once again. NU finished the season 35-3, which included a perfect 12-0 in ML play and won the Sac-Joaquin Section D-I and NorCal championships.
Outside hitter and opposite hitter, Daley was the first ever freshman to make the varsity squad. By the time her senior season rolled around the record books were being rewritten as she finished with 814 kills, sporting a 54.1 percent conversion rate, 439 digs, 164 blocks and 105 aces to lead the state in each category, earning league, school and Sacramento Bee MVP honors. She was also a member of the 2004 and 2005 A-2 Junior National Team.
Dailey extended her career at Long Beach State where she was named Big West Conference Freshman of the Year and All-Big West first team. Daley moved to UCLA for her sophomore season and led the Bruins with 16 kills and 15 digs in the National semi-finals against Nebraska in Omaha. Starting all 32 matches her junior year, Daley was named All-Pac 10 Honorable Mention. In her senior season, Daley led the Bruins with 353 kills and 23 aces.
“(Daley) won the USVBA (United States Volleyball Association) National Championship with girls from her UCLA team,” Rodgers said. “They defeated the USA Red and Blue teams. I got to see a number of her matches in college. Everyone thinks of her as a hitter, but she’s excellent all-around, serving and defending.”
As part of the Lady Miner basketball squad, the 6-foot 1-inch forward averaged 8.6 points per game in 2004 during her senior year while shooting 40 percent from the floor and recording team-highs per game of 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.3 steals and 17 total blocked shots. NU finished as co-Champions of the Metro League.
“(Daley) was the kind of player that could change a game all by herself with her athleticism,” added former NU basketball coach Ganskie. “She could definitely jump.”
Kelley Cook, a 1991 NU graduate and basketball sensation, was and always will be the athlete who changed it all in the eyes of her generation and for many to come, leading the Lady Miners to three consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section D-I championships with a high school career record of 124-12.
“(The Section titles) were all neat in their own way,” said Cook. “We won three in a row, but the last one was special. We were underdogs and no one thought we would do it. It was a neat way to wrap a my high school career.”
Some of Cook’s more prominent moments in her athletic career include being named to the CalHiSports first-team all-state team in 1990 and 1991, the 1991 Gatorade California girls basketball player of the year, the Parade all-American, the Sacramento Bee’s two-time female player of the year, winning three consecutive Division-I section titles (1989-1991), scoring 47 points in the Miner’s 67-64 victory over Merced in the 1991 title game, which rank as the most ever for a Section championship, current record holder for the Northwestern Wildcats women’s basketball team for the best single season and career 3-point shooting percentage, which sits at an astounding .444 and most recently, the only Nevada Union athlete to be inducted into the Section Hall of Fame last fall.
“I would say I am most proud of how I played every position on the court at one time or another, our three section titles and our overall record,” said Cook. “I had a sweatshirt that read 124-12 which was our record for the four years at Nevada Union. I wore it until there were holes in it.”
Cook not only made a statement with her athleticism on the court, but she became a public figure that changed the perception of women’s sports for the Nevada County community.
“Back then it wasn’t cool for girls to play sports,” said Cook. “We were so successful that eventually the whole town showed up to our games. Even the boys football team came to every game to be our cheerleaders.”
The only inductee with an advanced degree, Cook is just one of 19 athletes that became part of the elite Hall of Fame group. Upon graduating Nevada Union as valedictorian, Cook attended Northwestern University, home of the Wildcats. She led the Big Ten Conference in three pointers and her team even made it to the NCAA March Madness tournament going as far as the Sweet 16 before being eliminated by Tennessee. Cook later transferred to UC Santa Barbara to finish her undergraduate degree and is now a mother of two children.
“I was blessed with supportive parents, teammates and coaches,” said Cook. “Coach (Craig) Strohm’s enthusiasm pushed us to be better. His inspirational pre-game speeches made us so fired up I almost felt sorry for the other team.”
Alyssa Reina, a 2012 Bear River graduate, showcased her athletic abilities on the softball diamond helping the Lady Bruins to three Sac-Joaquin Section titles in of her four-year reign.
“She’s the reason why coaches coach,” said former Bear River Softball coach Duaine Zauner, who led the Lady Bruins to five Section titles in his final six seasons. “She had the ability to play up. I kept her on the JV team to help develop Maddie Phelps’ pitching so they could feed into varsity. Lots of kids don’t do that anymore, but she was willing to do that for the program.”
Some of Reina’s honorable achievements just for 2012 include The Union Female Athlete of the Year, Auburn Journal Female Athlete of the Year, Bear River co-Female Athlete of the Year, All-American mid-sized schools (MaxPreps), All-State First Team (MaxPreps), All-State Second Team (Cal-Hi Sports), All-State medium schools (CAL-HI Sports Magazine), All-Metro First Team (Sac Bee), Pioneer Valley League MVP, River Cats All-City Team and a spot on the roster in the Optimist All-Star softball game.
“I’m most grateful for those four years just being with my team,” Reina said. “They made me want to get better for them. Everyone was super close. It was so much fun to play day in and day out. It was a grind, but having my team made it fun.”
Reina also holds nine records at Bear River, the most of any softball player in the history of the program. Some of her records include highest batting average for single-season (.589) and career (.498), most home runs for single-season (8) and career (19) and highest slugging percentage for single-season (1.044) and career (.873).
Reina was more than just an offensive threat for the Lady Bruins. She also made her presence known behind the plate at catcher.
“Coaches had respect for her,” Zauner added. “She threw out like 75 percent of base runners so nobody ran on her. We played in the Platinum Division at a tournament in Tracy, which had all the regular playoff contending teams, and coaches recognized her great ability after seeing her in just one game.”
As a catcher Reina invested the time and developed relationships with her pitchers, which clearly had a positive impact on her skill set.
“I played with Erin Nichol most of my softball career and really connected with Maddie Phelps too,” said Reina. “We were friends on and off the field. I trusted them. Pitchers and catchers need to have a strong bond because they touch the ball more than anyone else. They helped me get better. The more reps they took the more practice I had.”
Reina was a leader in more ways than one and she consistently delivered for her team to get the job done in games, as well as leading by example off the field.
“(Reina) had a great attitude and was willing to help her teammates,” Zauner said. “She stayed after practice with Ashleigh Higginbotham, she helped youth teams and coaches’ clinics for Nevada County. She was a captain junior and senior year, always smiled, she knew what she was doing. The kids bought into what needed to be accomplished.”
During those years there was the right combination of talented student-athletes and parent support that enabled this program to develop and perform the way it did, Zauner added.
“Zauner never let us slack off, but he let us have fun in the process of getting better,” added Reina. “He’s the best coach in the sense of letting us be ourselves to get the job done. To end on such a great game (2012 section championship) where we had worked all year long and have nine seniors stick it out for four years made it an amazing high school experience.”
Reina now plays for North Dakota State where she has started in all 32 games as either catcher or designated player. She has already smashed three home-runs as the Lady Bison have improved to a perfect 6-0 in the Summit Conference and 19-13 overall.
Brooke Hodges, a 2005 Forest Lake Christian graduate, stood tall at six-feet and led the Lady Falcons to a state title on the hardwood in 2004.
She was prolific 3-point shooter and demonstrated phenomenal athleticism playing all five positions her junior and senior years.
Like much of Nevada County’s top talent, Hodges stepped up young and played at the varsity level all four years during Forest Lake Christian’s dominant reign in the Central Valley California League where the team went undefeated in league play all four seasons.
Some of Hodges more prominent accomplishments include two first team All-League selections, two second team All-League selections, first team All-State Division V, First Team All-City for the Sacramento region, three Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championships, Nor Cal runner up in 2005 and of course the state championship in 2004 when her Lady Falcons defeated Mission Prep of San Luis Obispo 65-47.
“Being apart of the FLC team was great.” Hodges said. “My teammates, coaches, and trainers became some of my closest friends and biggest supporters during my high school years. Being apart of a team taught me so much about hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. My best memory is, without question, winning the state championship my junior year. My team had worked so hard, both in and out of season. It felt like such an accomplishment being able to celebrate that victory with so many people that I love.”
If those achievements weren’t enough, then consider this. Hodges graduated as valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA and to this day remains the only female athlete to have her jersey retired at Forest Lake Christian. Nobody will ever wear number double zero again.
“Being the first jersey ever to be retired at FLC, it was a complete honor,” she said. “It was an amazing feeling leaving behind something in a place that had such an influence on not only my basketball career, but on who I had become as a person, as well.”
After graduating from Vanguard University, Hodges started a business with a group of friends called 31 Bits, www.31bits.com, that empowers women in Uganda to rise above poverty.
To contact Sports Writer Brian Shepard, call 530-477-4234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.