By Nick Giannandrea
The size of the Gilcrest Invitational has decreased, but the prestige of College of the Sequoias' 43rd annual women's basketball tournament remains as high as ever.
Long regarded as the state's toughest mid-season tournament, the Gilcrest Invitational has downsized from 16 to eight teams because of a change to state rules designed to make all schools play the same number of games (28) per season.
But a smaller field hasn't impacted the tournament's overall quality as five of the eight teams who will play inside Porter Field House between Dec. 5-7 are ranked among the state's Top 20 by the California Community College Women's Basketball Coaches' Association.
The tournament also includes teams - No. 2 Ventura, No. 7 Mt. San Antonio and No. 18 Chabot - that have combined to win 16 of the past 24 state titles.
"We've got a really good field again. One of the best," COS coach Ray Alvarado said. "It's going to be a challenge. We're looking forward to it."
No. 14 COS (6-1) is set to play Canyons (1-2) at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 in the showcase game of opening night. Other opening-round games include Reedley vs. eight-time state champion Mt. San Antonio (5-2) at 1 p.m.; No. 3 San Joaquin Delta (6-0) vs. L.A. Valley (1-2) at 3 p.m.; and seven-time state champ Ventura (6-0) vs. 2015 state champ Chabot (6-2) at 5 p.m.
If the Giants win, they advance to face the Ventura/Chabot winner in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Dec. 6.
The final is set for 4 p.m. Dec. 7. All games will be played in Porter Field House.
COS enters the tournament winners of six straight following a season-opening 82-79 loss to Feather River in a game that saw it squander a six-point lead in the fourth quarter.
The Giants, who return only Alaysia Reed (Las Vegas) and Elyssa Brumfield (Golden Valley-Bakersfield) from last season's team that reached the state Elite Eight, have yielded just 53.3 points per game since during wins over Merritt, Solano, Alan Hancock (twice), Cerritos and Folsom Lake.
COS has kept its winning streak alive despite the loss of key freshmen Felicia Ramirez (Caruthers) and Hailee Edwards (Ridgeview-Bakersfield), who have been out with injuries for most of the past four weeks.
"It's been an interesting season so far," Alvarado said. "We're 6-1. On the surface, that's great. But we've had some injuries that have set us back. For the most part, we have done a really good job of keeping the games close and prevailing in most of them."
Ramirez, sidelined by a fractured nose, returned to play 16 minutes off the bench during the Giants' latest game, a 80-61 home win over Allan Hancock on Nov. 23. Ramirez, who is averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, is expected to play during the Gilcrest Invitational.
Edwards has a shoulder injury and is most likely headed for a medical redshirt, according to Alvarado. Edwards was averaging 10.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
The Giants' nine other freshmen - Serena Ybarra (Coalinga), Neli Diaz (McFarland), Aubrey Nunes (El Diamante), McKenna Hsiung (Bakersfield), Clarissa Chavez (Redwood), Lucy Tazio (El Diamante), Sapphire Jones (Hanford), Kuda Ceesay (Atlanta) and Savannah Surfus (Redwood) - are all contributing to a team that is ranked tied for seventh in Northern California.
"The challenge has been to get the freshmen to play at a higher level and play at the level of our program," Alvarado said. "It's been a transition for them understanding the goals and traditions of the program, but they are starting to adjust. That's been pleasing."
Alvarado said that despite the Giants' youth, expectations remain high for a program that has won the Central Valley Conference title in four of the past five seasons, made six straight playoff appearances and reached the state Elite Eight the past three years.
"I can't go backwards. For me personally, that's impossible to do," Alvarado said. "Our goal is to keep it the same. We want to compete for the conference title, get a high playoff seed and get to the state tournament.
"If you look at the names on our roster, they were some of the best players in the Valley (from last season.) It's a good recruiting class, maybe one of our best. They key is how quickly they grow and understand the culture we have here and buy into it. I'm confident we can keep what we have here going."
COS has won the past two Gilcrest Invitational titles. The Giants beat Sacramento City 71-66 during the final last season, and Mt. San Antonio 64-51 in the final in 2018.