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A year ago at this time, Central Valley High School fielded its first-ever varsity girls basketball team.

The Hawks finished in last place in the Valley Oak League (0-14).

"We didn't have the advantage of having seniors and height," junior guard Julie Calderon said. "It was a learning experience. I see us going somewhere this year. We progressed a lot throughout the summer."

Added Hawks head coach Jesse Padilla: "I knew we were going to take our beatings last year. It's an equal playing field now. They got a year of maturity under their belt. No excuses."

The Hawks will rely on the leadership and skill of Calderon and junior point guard Miranda Espinoza in 2007-08. The two have been friends and teammates since grade school.

"It's a lot of pressure on me and Miranda, but we can deal with it," Calderon said. "We put in a lot of practice over the summer because we want this year to be the best year."

"It's a coach's dream having players like that," Padilla said. "The other girls around them see it (their commitment)."

Calderon led the Hawks in scoring in 13 of 14 games at the varsity level as a sophomore en route to earning honorable-mention accolades. She averaged 15 points per contest.

Julie's offseason consisted of a full diet of hoops.

She played for her high school's AAU team.

She volunteered as an assistant coach with the Ceres Shock. The AAU youth basketball program was founded by Delvekio Rudd, her former coach.

She even watched several PAC-10 women's hoops teams play, including Stanford, California, Arizona, UCLA, USC and Arizona.

When Calderon played volleyball for the Hawks in the fall, basketball wasn't too far from her mind.

"That's all I'd think about," she said.

Calderon has already peaked the interest of several four-year colleges, including UCLA.

"It's the best feeling knowing they're out there looking at you," she said. "It gave me the desire to strive to be the best."

Calderon, Espinoza, senior Latrisha Jordan (forward), junior Whitney Richardson (forward) and sophomore Phylicia Martinez (center) make up Central Valley's starting lineup.

Seniors Marissa Cabusas, Crystal Gutierrez, Madalyn Khut, Tatiana Rivas, Brooke Davis, Tatiana Rivas, Erika Marmolejo and Ligia Cristaldi, juniors Christina Ferrufino and Josephine Franz, and freshman Clarissa Ibarra are also on the team.

"We have a lot of good guards," Calderon said. "Our post players are getting aggressive. And our defense is tightening."

Calderon and the Hawks' AAU squad posted a 12-8 record, winning seven of 11 games at Chico State and five of nine contests at the University of the Pacific.

"I'm a firm believer in that champions are made in the summertime," Padilla said.

Central Vallley's conference schedule includes games against Ceres High, Sonora, East Union, Sierra, Oakdale, Manteca and Weston Ranch.

The Hawks lost twice by a combined 69 points to the crosstown rival Bulldogs last season.

"We're even talking about it right now," Calderon said. "It's going to be competitive this year."

Asked what he'd consider a successful season, Padilla said: "If we finish above .500 and improve our decision making. I really think we can make the playoffs. It's there for the taking."

"I think we're going to do great," Calderon said. "If we work together, we'll be able to get there."