TURLOCK — Edwin Santiago, in his sixth season as head coach of the Turlock Christian girls basketball team, sits in a room just outside the gymnasium where the Eagles play their home games. Sunlight pours through the windows and, just as Punxsutawney Phil promised, an early spring seems destined.
But spring is for outside. Inside it's still basketball season. Winter.
Santiago is getting ready for practice, just a few days before facing International of San Francisco, the team that eventually will end Turlock Christian's season, 61-47, in the second round of the Division 5 Northern California regionals on March 9.
The coach is asked what one word most adequately describes the best player he's ever coached 5-foot-10 point guard Halie Bergman.
Santiago pauses, as if contemplating an answer during "Final Jeopardy." Eventually, he chooses a word and his reply is clear, almost over-enunciated.
"Grit," he says slowly, as if the word is spelled with three T's.
It's a good choice. It takes something extra, something you can't define like grit to overcome two ACL injuries and a meniscus tear to the same knee and eventually become The Bee's 2013 Player of the Year.
"I've had to pick her up twice," says Santiago, making a motion with his arms like Popocatépetl carrying the Aztec princess (Google it). "It was the most painful thing, knowing each time that her season was over."
Season, but not career.
Twice, Bergman battled through arduous rehabilitation stints. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee midway through her freshman year, then again before her sophomore season when the replacement ligament didn't do its job.
But not only did Bergman come back, she put up numbers that drew the attention of several Division I colleges, including the University of the Pacific, where she'll play next season.
"I definitely had some tough times with the surgeries," says Bergman, the first player in school history, girl or boy, to earn a scholarship to a D-I school. "I definitely had some lows, but I had a great supporting cast family, teammates, coaches."
This season, after missing the first two games (both blowout losses) with a meniscus tear, she totaled 27.3 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 6.1 steals and 3 blocks per game while leading the Eagles to a 25-6 record. Perhaps the most impressive stat was her minuscule 2.1 turnovers per game almost unheard of for a high school point guard.
Obviously, the knee didn't affect her play. But do thoughts of yet another injury linger?
"I can't think like that," she declares. "It's not something that sits in the back of my mind. It's not something that changes my game. If it does ... what's the point of rehabilitating."
Mark Anger, coach of the East Bay Xplosion travel team, calls Bergman one of the best shooters he's ever had in his program.
"She's athletic and definitely has talent, but other people have talent, too," says Anger. "She has everything you need to be a successful player dedication, commitment. She wants to be a player. She's wanted to a college basketball player since I met her in the eighth grade. And she's willing to put in the extra work, the rehab. She could've quit, but she's fearless."
Kate Farrar, another Turlock Christian senior, says it's Bergman's drive that separates her from the pack.
"She's very driven," says Farrar. "She has really good court vision, she drives really well, and she's a very good ball handler. She puts a lot of time and effort into her play.
"She's a very supportive teammate. She knows what she's doing, so she's a leader on the court. Everyone listens to her. She's someone everybody looks up to."
During the interview, more players begin showing up at the gym to prepare for International. The echo of leather balls bouncing off hardwood becomes more prominent. It's evident that Bergman, the basketball junkie, is jonesing to hit the floor.
As a wrap-up question, she's asked to guess which word her coach used to describe her. It doesn't take her long to answer, though she offers up an obligatory "Umm ..." in an effort to make it look a little bit difficult.
"I'd say 'Grit.' He's big on that."
Well, it's easy to see why.