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ONeal sisters reunite at Ceres High
Ayannah ONeal (left) and older sister Mahlena ONeal played one season of varsity girls basketball together at Ceres High School. - photo by DALE BUTLER/The Courier

Ceres High School's varsity girls basketball team had a set of siblings on its roster during the 2015-16 season.

The O'Neal sisters, senior Mahlena and sophomore Ayannah, relished the chance to play hoops together for the final time.

They suited up for Sinclear Elementary School in the Ceres Youth Basketball League during their childhood.

"It was refreshing to have sisters on the team," Bulldogs head coach Kristen McClure said. "Athletic talent runs in the family."

"The last time we played together I was in the sixth grade and she was in the fourth grade," Mahlena said. "We each have similar traits."

"We're competitive on the court and at home," Ayannah said.

Mahlena and Ayannah were welcome first-year additions to Ceres High's varsity girls basketball program.

The O'Neal sisters contributed off the bench.

"The main reason I did basketball was to get into better shape for softball," said Mahlena, a guard/forward on the hardcourt. "I wasn't expecting to come in and play a lot. I just like being on the team. It's really fun."

Mahlena helped lead Ceres High's hoops squad to a first-place finish at the Dec. 3-5 Hughson tournament.

She totaled 16 points in three games.

She scored a career-high 10 points during Ceres High's 49-33 blowout of Denair on Dec. 4.

She buried two clutch 3-pointers in the Bulldogs' 58-57 win over Gregori in the title game on Dec. 5.

"It felt good to be back out there," Mahlena said. "The most challenging part was the speed. Freshman basketball is slower than varsity."

Mahlena last played organized basketball when she suited up for McClure and varsity assistant Kyleesha Williams in the ninth grade. She filled a key role as the Bulldogs posted a near-perfect 20-1 overall record and won the Western Athletic Conference championship (12-0).

She focused solely on softball her junior and sophomore years.

"It was cool," Mahlena said while talking about reuniting with McClure and Williams. "They're my favorite basketball coaches."

Mahlena expected to see limited playing time during her first and only season at the varsity level.

"For not playing for two years, I think she did an awesome job," McClure said. "You couldn't really tell she took time off. It was great to have her back on the court. She's a good basketball player. She can step out and shoot the 3. She can drive to the basket. She can play any position. She's smart. She's an all-round athlete."

Added Mahlena: "I was just happy to get minutes. I did whatever the coaches told me to do."

Mahlena's main sport is softball. She will try to lead Ceres High to its fifth consecutive playoff berth and third straight WAC title this spring. She signed a national letter of intent with the University of Georgia on Nov. 11.

Ayannah, a forward/guard, saw her minutes increase significantly during the latter part of the season.

"This was a learning year for her," McClure said. "She improved a lot. She's going to be a good player for us next season."

"Being on varsity is a big deal," Ayannah said. "I love being around friends."

Mahlena will graduate from Ceres High in June and head off to college to continue her softball career.

Ayannah will have an increased role with the Bulldogs her junior year.

"When we did certain drills, they liked to push each other around," McClure said while talking about the sibling rivalry. "It was pretty fun to watch. They're competitive with each other."

"She's hard on me because she knows I can do better," Ayannah said. "She pushes me."

"She always tells me the truth," Mahlena said. "She doesn't sugar coat things."

Ceres High experienced a major turnaround in girls basketball this past season.

The Bulldogs (14-11, 6-6 Western Athletic Conference) doubled their overall win total from a year ago.

Ceres High compiled a 7-12 record and had a 4-8 mark in WAC play during the 2014-15 campaign.