Danny Soliman, following the conclusion of his fourth season coaching the Sandra Day O’Connor girls’ basketball team in 2018-19, brought his girls together and told them he was going to change the team’s culture.
With a young core of players, several of them playing their first games at the varsity level, the Eagles struggled to a 14-13 record and a first-round exit in the 6A playoffs to eventual-champion Hamilton.
Through 23 games, the Eagles boasted a 20-3 record, and were in position for a high playoff seed come the tournament later in February. With most of the main contributors back for another season, Soliman said the main focus this offseason was character work, rather than skills training. The result is a winning record, and one of the most talented, deep groups Soliman has coached in his career.
“I told them that the adversity we had last year put us in a position to be successful,” he said.
Even still, much of the team thinks the state still has little faith that the Eagles can keep it up. Rather than feel disrespected, they enjoy it.
“When you’re a team that most people don’t expect to win, you love that. We feed off of that, and I think that’s something that makes us better,” said senior Gabriella Ilunga Kabamba.
“Once we realized we were legit and once we started winning, that’s when we realized we had a chance to do something that most people aren’t.”
The Eagles still have plenty of youth on their roster. Junior guards Elle Walker and Paris Atuahene are the two leading scorers for O’Connor, according to Max Preps. But, O’Connor substitutes heavily, getting a lot of players out on the court to ramp up defensive pressure.
Mostly, the players are more concerned with the number of wins, rather than individual statistics. In fact, seven players average at least one assist per game, meaning the Eagles are moving the ball well.
“We’re going off of others’ success, not really worrying about how many points we’re scoring ourselves,” said senior Lauryn McIver. “It’s more about what we can do as a group and how we can all feel good out there on the floor.”
O’Connor plays fast defensively, clogging passing lanes and hounding ball handlers to create steals and transition baskets on the other end. Their pace is frustrating to opponents, many of whom have trouble getting past half-court on certain possessions, and tiring.
And, unlike some teams, the Eagles can play ten or more players in a game, and expect each to make contributing plays on the floor. In fact, with quick speed the Eagles play at, it is necessary for Soliman’s bench players to keep up the pressure the starters created.
“We’re going to tire the other team out by the third or fourth quarter, and then we’ll still have fresh legs. And that’s how we can play all the kids that I think can make an impact for us,” Soliman said.
As of Jan. 31, Sandra Day O’Connor was ranked No. 5 in the AIA 6A rankings, with mere weeks left before the playoffs. The Eagles hope their success continues and they can make a long playoff run. But, regardless of how they finish, the path from mediocrity to great success has been meaningful for everybody involved.
“To know that we can bring ourselves back up from a low place, to know we always had this in us, it’s been so much fun,” McIver said.