O’Connor coach Danny Soliman

O’Connor coach Danny Soliman calls a play in a recent game.

Last year was nearly a Cinderella story for the Sandra Day O’Connor Eagles girls basketball team.

O’Connor surprised much of 6A by going 23-4 and reaching the playoff quarterfinals last year before bowing out in its best season under coach Danny Soliman.

Now the Eagles, who went 2-0 to start the season with five of last year’s top six scorers on the roster, hope to improve even further. The players on the current iteration of the Eagles have been looking toward this year as potentially their most successful since they were young.

“This year we collectively thought it would be our year,” said senior guard Elle Walker, the team’s leading scorer. 

“We were looking forward to having this group altogether because we knew, if everyone was back, we could be really good.”

Walker is part of a stellar two-player backcourt, along with senior Paris Atuahene. They are scoring threats from beyond the arc and in the paint, with the ability to run transition offense and make smart passes. 

Several talented forwards, such as rebound-leader junior Jocelyn Erickson, make cuts to the basket, allowing the guard duo to rack up assists. Others step in at a moment’s notice. 

With a shortened and uncertain offseason due to COVID-19, Soliman had plenty of concern — like every winter sports coach in 2021 — about getting the team prepared to play safely and effectively. However, his faith in his veterans’ offensive grasp was not on the list of worries.

“It was a blessing to know that, after everything was cleared and ready to go, I had my core group back who knew exactly what I expect from them,” Soliman said.

And, while the quick guards lead a speedy offense, they also are at the point of attack in a full-court press defense the Eagles can pull out in spurts. With Atuahene, Walker and the backcourt pressure the ball, while others are tasked with jumping passing lanes and coming up with steals that can lead to fast break opportunities on offense.

“It’s so much fun, especially when we can get up there and run teams down,” Walker said of the press.

Still, despite the individual statistics and wins, the Eagles still consider themselves an underdog of sorts. Conference 6A stalwarts such as defending-champion Valley Vista and runner-up Hamilton both return talented rosters. They, and other solid teams, stand in the way of the Eagles’ hopeful run. But, with the current roster, Walker believes the Eagles are right there as well.

A 70-55 loss to Perry in the quarterfinal was a bitter ending to what was until then a sweet season in 2020. Others questioning O’Connor’s abilities just fuels the fire.

“A lot of people have underestimated us for so many years,” Walker said. “Then, last year it felt good to overcome some of that, even though we felt short of what we wanted. Now it’s about getting even more.”