OAKDALE — It could be many years before a player of Christin Gowan's caliber dons an East Union High basketball jersey. Or it might just be one more season, if Rachel McDaniel continues to improve at this mercurial pace.
"Christin was a great player, she was the MVP of our league last year," noted McDaniel, a 5-foot-7-inch junior who plays the post, the point and the wing. "She was the one who, when we needed a big shot at the end of the game, we'd look to. She was our leader."
With the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs looming, the Lancers appear to have found a new leader in McDaniel.
She had 19 points, along with five steals and four assists Tuesday night, as the Lancers beat Oakdale 56-39 to stay perfect in the Valley Oak League. It was the 22nd consecutive league victory for the Lancers (15-7, 9-0), whose last VOL loss was in the Oakdale gym.
"Rachel has really taken off in league, averaging about 18 a game for us," said coach Jim Agostini, a veteran assistant who took over the team this season. "She's really given us some offense."
It was EU's 11th consecutive victory this season, quite a turnaround from the 4-7 start that included two three-game losing streaks. All but one of those losses came during a grueling stretch of nine games in 14 days in early December.
"I think we were trying to find ourselves back then," Agostini said.
"Gowan was a great player, but we felt we had four or five girls who could step up and lead this team."
No one player would be capable of replacing Gowan, The Bee's Player of the Year, but Agostini felt the potential was there for the group to share the burden that was Gowan's alone last season.
"We told the girls at the start that the expectations would be as high as ever," said Agostini, who is in a similar situation after replacing Brian Goulart atop one of the Stanislaus District's most successful programs.
"We've won two of the last three VOL titles and I felt this group was good enough to win again. We've got some tough games left, though."
Compared to the playoffs, though, the regular season is child's play.
EU is headed to the Division III tournament, possibly the toughest of the five divisions with nationally ranked Sacramento and St. Mary's of Stockton. The top four teams in the power ratings are a combined 58-6.
It's still a few weeks before the Lancers have to worry about those teams.
That gives them more time to hone their full-court press, an in-your-face defense that tries to force foes into double-teams -- with the sideline acting as a third defender. It allowed the Lancers to pile up 19 steals Tuesday.
On the other end, McDaniel could be found penetrating the middle, often using a jump-step to split two defenders. She would either head to the hoop or whip a one-handed pass to a teammate -- who was usually open.
"I've got good peripheral vision, so I can see the red jersey over there," said the versatile McDaniel, who was on the all-VOL defensive team as a sophomore.
"I've been playing with a lot of the girls since the seventh grade, too, so I have a good idea of how they play and where they'll be."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.