1990 STHS grad turns around Antelope Valley program
April Davenport is giving her Antelope Valley High School girls basketball players what she rarely had as a player- continuity and commitment.
Davenport, who starred for the South Tahoe High Vikings in the late 1980s and graduated in 1990, has transformed the longtime downtrodden Antelopes into a Southern California powerhouse.
In just three years, Davenport has changed the Antelopes from a program that couldn’t field a JV team and suffered through a coaching turnstile into the class of the Golden League and a contender for the California state championship.
“We’re going to be a real force for years to come,” Davenport said. “We’re not going away. One thing I didn’t have as a player was continuity in coaching, and I’m committed to giving these girls what I missed.”
Antelope Valley was fortunate to land the intensely motivated Davenport. An aunt informed her of an opening for a physical education teacher for a Lancaster middle school only days before the 1996-97 school year commenced. Even though she hadn’t procured a California teaching credential, she received the position under the emergency teacher-shortage program.
She taught during the day at New Vista Middle School, squeezed in coaching the eighth-grade girls team after school and then attended classes at night to complete her masters in education.
Only a year later, Davenport quickly ascended to Antelope Valley varsity girls coach.
For a young woman who always has answered a challenge, Antelope Valley presented Davenport with a task as daunting as swimming across Lake Tahoe on a winter morning.
At the first team tryout, only 12 girls turned out. Of the dozen, only two – both freshmen – really knew the game.
“We managed to scrounge up enough players to also field a JV team, but a freshman team was out of the question,” Davenport recalled. “One day, my assistant and I glanced down at the row of chairs beside us where our starting lineup sat, and alongside each of their sports bottles were their inhalers. All but one of the starting players had asthma. It just struck us funny … all we could do was laugh.
“We were so bad. I knew I wasn’t going to walk in as a first-year coach and have all the talent in the world. I knew it would take time to develop.”
Still, Davenport squeezed four victories out of that group, and then began laying the groundwork for today’s successes. The rebuilding started with her transferring her teaching job to the high school. Because schooling was year-round at the middle school, she wasn’t able to work with players as much as she desired in the preseason.
“I figured I could influence the kids there if I taught there,” said Davenport, whose Antelopes struggled through a five-win season in her second year. “It was important for me to give these kids a sense of control over their destinies. Basketball can be the door to college for a lot of these kids … the only door they’ll have.”
Davenport’s tireless efforts, included instituting a summer league. They began paying off this season when 70 girls tried out for the school’s three teams.
“She’s done a phenomenal job,” said Lisa Oates, Antelope Valley’s vice principal of athletics. “More girls are going out for athletics this year on all three levels. She’s turned a losing steak into a winning one, which will promote more girls participating next year.”
This season, players were greeted by a firmer Davenport, who spent part of her summer attending a coaching clinic headed by highly successful Tennessee Volunteers coach Pat Summit.
“I might have had the coaching knowledge, but I was a little too soft,” Davenport said. “I laid it on the line, let them know what I expected and told everyone who wasn’t willing or able to comply to leave. It only made them want (to play) more.”
After an impressive 11-2 preseason that included a tournament trophy, Davenport converted the remaining nonbelievers with a 3-0 league start, including 61-42 and 67-59 upsets of league favorites Little Rock and Quartz Hill, respectively.
“We were picked to finish sixth in our six-team league, and that was a huge motivating factor,” Davenport said. “Playing together and getting to know each other and trust each other helps. At the Quartz Hill game, it was touch-and-go, but we were playing really tough. At one point, my junior starter Crystal (McCutcheon) shot up a 3-pointer, my little freshman Sheena (Crenshaw) made a behind-the-back no-look pass to the post player Jacquana, (Young) who tossed it up and in and was fouled, and the crowd erupted.
“I called a time-out just so the kids could listen to the cheers of the crowd and bask in the glory of winning. I said, ‘Listen to that. That’s for you … that’s why you play basketball.’ I wanted them to always remember that moment.”
The Antelopes – who started a senior-less lineup – didn’t let up, winning the Golden League with a 10-2 record. With a 21-5 overall mark, the Antelopes were a late-season fixture in the Los Angeles Times top-10 poll.
“She’s a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable coach,” Oates said. “She doesn’t stand on sidelines; she’s very participatory. She doesn’t talk the talk, she walks the walk. She’s out there showing them what they need to do.”
Antelope Valley’s dream season ended Feb. 23 in a 61-54 loss to Newbury Park in the third round of the playoffs. Two more playoff wins would have organized a homecoming of sorts for Davenport at state venue Arco Arena in Sacramento.
“We return everybody but one (reserve) player,” she said. “With the expectations that we’ll have, we should be at Arco Arena. We almost made it this year.”
The unprecedented success won’t whisk Davenport out of town. She made a pact with 5-foot-9 all-everything point guard McCutcheon (17.9 points, 8.6 steals, 7.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds per game) to stay through her senior year after McCutcheon decided against transferring following her sophomore season with the Antelopes.
That’s a commitment Davenport never experienced with her coaches.
After playing in the state finals as a sophomore and advancing to the state tournament as a junior under Vikings Ron Thom, Thom was fired during her senior season in 1989-90. Her final season of prep ball was frustrating as the Vikings didn’t approach their previous success.
American River College was glad to have Davenport the following season. The all-around player was a stat-sheet stuffer during her two-year career, averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists per game. Her success wasn’t lost on the rest of the Camino Norte Conference as she earned all-conference honors as a freshman and conference MVP, team MVP, All-Northern California and All-California honors in her second season. She also left the school as an 82-percent free throw shooter and a record holder for her seven treys in one game.
Then University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, Colo., rewarded Davenport with a full-ride scholarship. But the coaching carousel started spinning again, as the Southern Colorado staff was fired in midseason of her junior year and a interim coach finished the season. The following year, Davenport had a new coach, and personal success couldn’t make up for the team’s struggles.
“Aside from American River, during most of my basketball career, there was never enough continuity in coaching to allow my teams to get really good,” she said. “For someone like me, who was very competitive, it was frustrating.”
The following year she started her coaching career – a high school freshman girls team in Colorado – while working on her teaching credential.
“I knew what she wanted to do for a long time,” said Davenport’s mom, Gail, who lives in Gardnerville. “She just loves the game, and coaching just seemed to be the place to go with it.”
Davenport’s former STHS teammate Erin Silva – now her sister-in-law – is also enjoying success coaching high school ball in California. The fifth-year Castro Valley High coach directed her team to a league title and a place in the postseason picture this winter.
“I would love to coach against her. We’re trying to get a tournament together next year,” Davenport said.
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