By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Montgomery Claire Donnelly provided a strong interior presence for Claremont McKenna’s basketball team. (Photo by Claremont McKenna College)
In the spirit of the name on their jersey, the Athenas of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps played smart and strong in a record-setting season.
Helping power the Athenas to the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament was former Montgomery high great Claire Donnelly. Also contributing was longtime teammate Chantal Evett.
“It was very exciting. The season was just a whirlwind,” Donnelly said. “Making the NCAA tournament was amazing. We were all proud of ourselves.”
Highlights included setting a school record for wins and capturing the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament title. While the Athenas fell to perennial power DePauw in the national tournament, the team was competitive to the end.
“It was awesome,” Evett said. “Everyone on our team just embraced their role and that’s why our team was so good. We all appreciated the hard work that we put in and our coach put in.”
Their first taste of college ball challenged the Montgomery High School graduates a season after leading the Vikings to the state high school playoffs.
Skilled and smart, Donnelly and Evett took their high tops and A-plus grades to Claremont McKenna College, one of three sister schools, including Harvey Mudd and Scripps colleges. The All-Empire players are just what one of the nation’s highest rated universities looks for in student athletes.
“Claremont McKenna has an incredibly strong tradition of athletics. We’re also serious about our academics,” said head basketball coach Kristen Dowling. “It’s very hard to find people that are qualified for our school. To have two of them is great.”
A starter early in the season, Donnelly settled in as a top reserve. Second on the team in rebounds and tops in blocking shots, Donnelly provided a post presence for the Athenas.
“Coach wanted me to see the game first. It made me a little bit more calm seeing what we would be facing,” Donnelly said. “Just being defensively sound, that’s like a huge thing for our team. It was a lot about aggressiveness, just kind of being strong inside.”
A deep roster at the guard position limited Evett’s playing time to about three minutes a game.
“My role was just to push the team and step in when I could,” Evett said. “I just came every day and worked extremely hard.”
Donnelly and Evett pushed one another to make a successful move to the college game.
“It’s worked out great. We’ve motivated each other to do well,” Donnelly said. “It’s another whole level, a faster game with strong competition.”
That they are best of friends helped the transition both on the court and in the classroom.
“We’ve always looked out for each other. In a brand new setting it’s important to have someone who’s been there with you,” Evett said.
Both enjoyed standout basketball careers at Montgomery. Donnelly and Evett helped lead the Vikings to the North Coast Section playoffs the past three seasons.
This year Montgomery went deeper with the California Interscholastic Federation playoff appearance.
“Chantal and Claire are exceptional student athletes and excellent role models. Their talent, overall support, determination, and team play clearly showed younger players how to achieve,” said Montgomery coach Steve Bell. “That unselfish approach unlocked a great deal of opportunity for them, their team, and how it would ultimately reflect on the entire program.”
The legacy of Donnelly and Evett includes helping Montgomery play its best in the postseason. As starters, they led the Vikings to consecutive North Bay League tournament titles and several section playoff wins.
Highlighting their senior season was the state playoff appearance.
One of the Empire’s top post players, Donnelly became a better ball handler and midrange shooter.
“I just love the feeling of being successful after working hard,” she said.
Never shy of contact and driving to the basket, Evett learned to create more shots for teammates and developed into a three point shooter.
“I just really worked on it to become confident. That definitely opened things up more,” she said.
Such passion for the game helped them add another winning chapter to Montgomery girls basketball.
“They worked hard on improving their skills, abilities, knowledge of the game, and took on more of a leadership role, and continued to invest in team principles,” Bell said.
Dowling recruited Donnelly and then spotted Evett when they competed for the Nor Cal Academy team at an AAU tournament in Southern California.
“Claire is a great post player. She adds size and we need that. Chantal’s a hardnosed guard. She plays really tough,” Dowling said. “They’re great additions.”
Working to make Claremont-Mudd-Scripps a winner again, Dowling expects both Donnelly and Evett to be in top shape for the start of workouts in August. Dowling will be going into her third season leading the program.
“They need to work hard and get better at everything,” Dowling said.
“Your spot is earned every year.”
Enjoying the final stretch of their freshman year in college, Donnelly and Evett are back on the court and in the team’s conditioning regimen.
“We know what to expect. That in a way motivates me,” Donnelly said.
Both will be back in Santa Rosa this summer and expect to stay sharp in open gym play at Santa Rosa Junior College and in summer leagues.
Their college team’s workout program also will keep them busy.
“It’s pretty cool to see the potential we have if we keep building on it,” Evett said. “We’ve definitely got some fire in us.”
Claire Donnelly and Chantal Evett
* Teammates on Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s basketball team
* Three-year Montgomery varsity players
* High school highlights: NCS playoffs 2011, 2012, 2013; CIF state playoffs 2013
* High school grades: Donnelly 4.64 GPA; Evett 4.8 GPA