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St. Margaret’s girls basketball’s love, chemistry creates ambition; eyes another CIF title

The Tartans look to be only the ninth team in this decade to repeat as CIF-SS champions

St. Margaret's coach Josh Markum looks on during shooting drills during a a St. Margaret's girls basketbal practice, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024 at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. St. Margaret's plays JSerra Catholic in the CIF-SS Div. 3A final on Saturday. (Ryan Kuhn, SOCoPrepSports.com)

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Sophia Gazzaniga’s basketball career includes some great memories. 

She can already call herself a CIF-Southern Section champion. 

The St. Margaret’s girls basketball team accomplished that feat last season with a win over Gahr. 

Now as the Tartans look to turn  those memories into history by repeating as champions. They play the CIF-Southern Section Div. 3A title game against JSerra Catholic this Saturday, and the game has become personal to her. 

But not for the reason one might think. 

“I just care that I get to play with these girls more,” she said. “I love this team with my entire heart.”

Her love for her teammates has also created a strong desire to win. 

Winning didn’t come easy the first time she put on a Tartans uniform. 

As a freshman in the spring of 2021, the pandemic was in full swing, practice was outside and she only won five games that year. 

“We didn’t really have a head coach,” Gazzaniga said. 

The coaching combination of Johnathan Tufo, Lori Fava and others helped out after head coach Nicole Riscica notified the team in an email that spring she was leaving. 

When the fog of the pandemic was lifted, the athletic department decided to find a new coach.

It hired Saddleback Valley Christian boys basketball coach Josh Markum who became available after the school closed its doors in June 2021. 

“My first impression was that ‘wow, he’d kind of short,’” Gazzaniga said laughing. “As he started working with us, we all became to bond as a team. He was great not only building us up as individuals but also team chemistry is so important.”

Markum’s ability to get the players to buy in and create chemistry didn’t take long. He also preached the importance of fundamentals, something he picked up while playing in college at Trinity International University in Chicago. 

“It was how can we love each other during this drill. It’s how can we be tough during this drill. It’s how can we have joy during this drill,” Markum said. “Boomer Roberts taught me that. He was the guy that left a lasting impression.”

St. Margaret’s center Sophia Gazzaniga goes up for a layup during a a St. Margaret’s girls basketbal practice, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024 at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. (Ryan Kuhn, SOCoPrepSports.com)

It wasn’t long before the Tartans started to improve. Tufo remained on Markum’s staff and said it wasn’t long before the program saw a change. 

Summer included a program with scrimmages against other teams that rolled right into a fall league which was never done in the past. 

“We do these tedious drills where you want to cry, but we know we are getting better every day and he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Gazzaniga said of Markum.

St. Margaret’s’ love, toughness, joy, and chemistry culminated in success last season. 

Now the Tartans and to build off it with another banner. 

Only Mater Dei, Orange Lutheran, La Salle, Beverly Hills, Rolling Hills Prep, Chaminade, West Torrance and Windward have consecutive CIF-SS titles over the past 10 years. That’s 1.4 percent of the 569 total schools in the CIF-SS.   

“A lot of it it having the right kids at the right time,” Markum said. “It’s really hard to win and to repeat is even harder.”

But with the right chemistry with motivated players, a detailed coach and a great support system, the Tartans know they have the right mindset to say on top.

And they aren’t doing it for themselves. 

“We want to win it for each other,” Gazzaniga said. “That’s what makes us different from every other team.”

Ryan was born and raised in Dana Point went to Dana Hills High School. He graduated from Sacramento State University with a BA in Journalism. Throughout his career as a sports journalist, he has covered high schools, colleges, and professional teams. After working for multiple newspapers in as many states, he came to the conclusion that what he really wanted was to make sure the high schools in his hometown area got the sports coverage they deserved. Follow him on Twitter @rskuhn

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