By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
EL SEGUNDO.–Last season, Lauren Sato had the kind of season that turns heads, wins games and attracts college recruiters: 17.6 points per game and nine games in which she scored 20 or more. By any measure, that’s a great season.
Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
This year, the El Segundo junior guard has been on a scoring tear, including a 52-point performance Dec. 9 against Marshall in Pasadena.
That’s no misprint, folks–52. More than half her team’s total in the 81-35 dismantling of Marshall.
“I really believe I just got lucky for that game,” Sato said, trying her best to stifle a broad grin.
Having seen her in practice and during a game, this reporter can attest that the kid wasn’t simply lucky, and it wasn’t a fluke.
The kid can flat-out shoot.
“She’s playing unbelievably right now, making my job easy,” said El Segundo head coach Kelly Geis, noting Sato’s five 3-pointers in the second quarter on Wednesday against Lawndale.
In fact, Sato’s 52 points broke the Eagles’ single game scoring record of 48–a mark set by Geis. That total included hitting 6 out of 14 three-point shots and missing only two of her 14 free throw attempts.
Heading into this weekend, the junior was averaging 24 points per game for a total of 408 points, including shooting 35 percent from three-point range and a stellar 72 percent from the free throw line.
So what has made the difference over the course of a year? Geis thinks it’s a combination of maturity and recognizing what the opposition is going to throw at her.
“Last year, she was definitely the focus of our offense, but she was still a sophomore and only 15,” Geis explained. “This year has come with maturity and she has definitely worked on some things in the off-season. She also played some really competitive club ball over the summer.”
Sato, who also plays on the F.O.R. All-Starz squad, confirmed it was the strength of opposing defenses that convinced her it was time to improve her game.
“Last year, I had a good pre-season, but when the regular season began, teams starting recognizing me and they started playing harder on me,” she explained. “That kind of slowed me down a bit.”
In addition to club ball, Sato spent her summer in the gym at El Segundo, coming in nearly every day to work with Geis on movement and ball handling, in addition to shooting. The 16-year-old said her corner shot has seen a marked improvement.
“Maybe this year, I have more confidence,” she said. “I think I have more control than I had last year, and I think that makes a big difference. Last year, I definitely forced many shots I shouldn’t have taken.”
The fruits of her off-season labor began to show in a big way, early in the season. At the San Gabriel Valley Tournament in December, El Segundo lost in the championship game to Flintridge Sacred Heart, but it was Sato who walked away with the MVP trophy–an almost unheard of feat, for a player from a team other than the champs to earn the honor.
As they prepared for their Friday Pioneer League contest at Centennial, El Segundo had a record of 10 wins and 7 losses, 1-1 in league. Geis said the Eagles’ record reflects the spate of injuries that have rocked the team, including what may be a season-ending ACL tear suffered by one of her senior guards. For the last several games, her starting five have included a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and a senior.
“The defenses are definitely focusing on Lauren, and we’ve gone down with some injuries, and she has to pick it up,” Geis said, adding that opponents’ focus on Sato has freed up some of her other potent scoring threats, including senior guard and team captain Mika Hongo.
Sato’s performance has, predictably, garnered plenty of attention from colleges. One local university, well-known for its successful women’s program, has already contacted her and shown keen interest. Her performance academically hasn’t hurt either, as she consistently posts As and Bs, though she said she doesn’t have much affection for her environmental science class.
A notable hole in Sato’s stats sticks out like a sore thumb, however. For the Jan. 7 league opener against South Torrance, she’s got zeros across the ledger. Not that she had an off night; she dislocated her right knee 30 seconds into the first quarter and didn’t return. A chiropractor reset it and she returned the following game to torch Lawndale for 30 points–with the knee heavily bandaged and not yet at 100 percent.
“It’s not too bad,” Sato shrugged. “And I’m not going to let something like that slow me down too much.”