By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Teaming to power Cal Poly Pomona’s bid back to the NCAA tournament, Empire basketball standouts Sarah Semenero and Charlene Popoff were longtime adversaries in prep playing days.

Semenero, a guard, now looks to feed Popoff in the post, staying in motion for a give and go or backdoor pass.

As top players in high school, though, Semenero (Sonoma Valley) and Popoff (Windsor) targeted one another for defensive stops over several years of Sonoma County League play.

“It’s definitely better having Char on my team than playing against her. We always look for each other. I love playing with Char,” Semenero said.

Having Semenero on her side helped Popoff adjust to the rigors playing in one of the nation’s toughest small college conferences.

“It’s so great that we’re on the same team. That’s crazy. We talk about it all the time,” Popoff said.

After working into Pomona’s starting lineup to help pace last season’s run to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, the pair has led the Broncos back near the top of the California Collegiate Athletic Association. Both seniors, Semenero and Popoff return home Saturday to face Sonoma State.

For the Broncos — ranked 16th in the nation — to again reach the NCAA tournament and defend their West Region tournament title, Semenero and Popoff need to continue playing exceptional, all-around games.

Second on Pomona in scoring, Semenero leads in 3-point shooting and steals and also is among conference leaders in both areas.

“This year I have to go and create my own shot more,” Semenero said. “I want to be more of a threat on offense so I can open up other players on my team.”

Pomona’s second leading rebounder, Popoff is third in both scoring and shooting accuracy. Making nearly half her shots, Popoff is ninth in the conference.

“I feel like I’m in a lot better shape than last year,” Popoff said. “This year I feel like I’m way more consistent.”

A determination to improve that carried both into the Pomona starting lineup became a passion to play even stronger this season.

Always working to improve her shooting and ball handling, Semenero pushed even harder in conditioning and defensive positioning drills to steal and rebound better. Pomona’s own “Gumby” wanted to gain more advantage from her long arms.

“Over summer I just kept thinking I only have one more year. That kept me going to the gym and working out,” she said.

Open gym time at Santa Rosa Junior College was a training center over summer. The Pomona pair joined many of the region’s other recent prep greats for workouts and games.

Popoff helped lead Santa Rosa to the California junior college championship game a year earlier. After emerging as a solid post player her first season at Pomona, Popoff honed her shooting and post play over summer.

“I needed to be better on boards and scoring under the basket,” she said. “It’s definitely a different level of competition. You can’t be soft.”

Toughness is coming back strong from a serious injury. That was Semenero’s challenge after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee as a sophomore, just as Semenero was playing more for the Broncos.

“It was really tough, physically a lot of work. It was all mental and getting my confidence back,” she said.

Add the need to impress a new head coach and battle for playing time. Doing just that, Semenero finally felt back on her game in the Sonoma State road contest a year ago.

“That’s when I started feeling more comfortable and not even thinking about my knee,” she said.

Capping her comeback season, Semenero was selected to the West Region All-Tournament Team.

Pomona’s great season ended with a quarterfinals loss to Northwest Missouri in the Elite Eight, in St. Joseph, Mo.

“We definitely want to go further and play for the national championship,” Popoff said. “If we get everyone staying on the goal we can get there. We’re going to be a great team. It’s slowly happening.”

Recent losses in conference play remind Pomona’s players how tough returning to the NCAA tournament can be.

“We have time to adjust and play like we know how to. We’re doing OK, but I know we can play a lot better,” Semenero said.

“Last year was definitely amazing,” she said. “Every time I walk into the gym I look up at the West Region banner, it makes me want it that much again.”