making the shot
Wildcats junior Nicole Steiner, seen here shooting over a Lynbrook player in their SCVAL De Anza Division opener Jan. 3, is in the midst of another tremendous season playing the post position. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.

When Los Gatos High junior Nicole Steiner burst onto the scene in her freshman year, she displayed a maturity beyond her age. 

With her strong and physical play, Steiner delivered impressive numbers, including a handful of 20/20 games (20 points, 20 rebounds), as expectations grew.

Steiner kept working hard and refined her game, putting herself in the running for Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division Player of the Year honors this season. 

The Wildcats entered this week’s action 19-2 overall and 9-0 in league. Barring a rash of unforeseen circumstances, they will finish unbeaten in the De Anza Division for the second consecutive year, making it 24-0 over the last two seasons. 

Junior returning starters Steiner, Ashley Childers and Ella Rabtiz have been key, along with senior returning starter Claire Galbo, and a handful of other players. 

“I would say we’ve had a strong season so far, and I think we are probably a little better than last year,” Steiner said. “The main starters all returned, and I think our chemistry is super good. We all know how to play with each other very well. Claire and I learned how to connect on the high-low (post offense), and me, Ashley and Ella have been playing basketball together since middle school and (National Junior Basketball).” 

To say the Wildcats have been dominant in league play this season is an understatement.

To wit: they’ve won every game by double-digits, including a 26-point victory over Homestead, a 35-point win over Los Altos and a 51-point demolition of Palo Alto. 

Los Gatos hasn’t been challenged since it suffered a 58-39 loss to Colfax on Dec. 30.

The team’s only other loss came to another powerful team, Pinewood, also in December.

Los Gatos had the lead in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on and eventually lost, 57-52. 

The Wildcats are likely to make the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs for the second straight year, putting them among the elite squads in the section.

Mitty, the nation’s top-ranked team by Max Preps, is a shoo-in to win the Open and likely won’t be challenged until it reaches the CIF State Championship final. But the ’Cats would love to finish with the second best record in the Open Division bracket. 

“For the playoffs, there’s obviously Mitty, and they’re going to beat anyone they play. But it would be really cool if we could get to the finals of the Open,” Steiner said. “That would be a really good goal to get to.”

When freshmen display poise and talent, the rest of their career usually ends up going one of two ways: either they peak early, and the rest of the competition catches up to them; or, they keep improving, and continue to rise in stature. 

Steiner is the latter situation, having improved parts of her game with each succeeding grade level. Her improved footwork and movement allow her to get to her spots for high percentage shots in the lane.

And this season, Steiner has made it a point to work on her mid-range game, particularly when it comes to shooting from the elbow area. 

“This year, I’m definitely trying to shoot a little more mid-range, and not everything directly under the basket,” she said. “I’ve only done that a little bit, but I still need to try that a little more, especially against the not-so-good teams. I need to take advantage of that and shoot more.”

Make no mistake: Steiner is at her best on the low block. She scores the majority of her points off putbacks or a move to the basket from this position. As a result, Steiner has had several games in which she’s shot 60% or better from the field—remarkably accurate in the prep game. Steiner’s biggest growth has come in her mindset with the officiating. 

Generally, powerful post players draw a lot of contact, and Steiner takes her fair share of physicality. Early in her career, Steiner could get frustrated if a foul wasn’t called if she went up for a shot and a defender made obvious contact. 

However, Steiner has made the necessary adjustments to her game and focused on being mentally tougher. 

Nicole Steiner says she doesn’t let calls by referees get to her as much anymore. (Jonathan Natividad)

“I think I’ve become desensitized to the refs,” she said. “I just had to learn how to play through contact and I think I’ve been good at that this year. Sometimes I’ll ask about certain fouls and they’ll tell you to watch for this or that. So, they’re usually pretty good (in communicating).”

A three-sport standout, Steiner made the ultra-difficult decision in December to drop club volleyball, the sport many thought she would end up playing in college.

However, Steiner’s rise in basketball and the shot put—an event in which she’s been competing for just two years—has attracted interest from four-year schools. 

Steiner will put her focus on club basketball throughout the year, and the shot put in the spring track and field season. 

“It was definitely a really big decision,” she said. “A long, long process, with several talks with my parents for a few months trying to figure out if it was the right decision for me. In the end, I didn’t want to play volleyball in college anymore. It was a big step to take and I’m happy with my decision—and confident it was the right one. Still, it was kind of sad: an end to a big era.”

Steiner hasn’t selected a club team yet, but there are some nice options in the area, including Fever Basketball, which is coached by Doc Scheppler, the same person who Steiner credits for improving her mid-range shot. 

“Once the club season starts, I think recruiting will start picking up a little more because people don’t know me exactly yet,” she said.

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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