Yet again, Angel Jackson scores a commanding double-double. And so her proud coach, Steve Pezzola, reaches out to his occasional “texting buddy” – Jackson’s mother.
“And her mom would say, ‘She missed two free throws,’” Pezzola said. “And I’d be like, ‘She was eight for 10 from the line.’”
Don’t bother asking Jackson to brag about herself, either.
A sports reporter who tried that once found the Richmond native “quick to deflect credit.” Jackson, a 6-foot-5 McDonald’s All-American who averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game for the Salesian College Preparatory Pride this season, credited her success to her teammates and coaching staff.
“I help them and they help me,” she told the reporter.
Which is true. There are many reasons to have pride in this basketball program. The team has just come off its third straight North Coast Section Division III title. In 10 seasons under Pelozza, the Pride has “won outright or shared a league championship” the last seven seasons, according to Prep2Prep, which recently named Pelozza the 2018-19 NCS Coach of the Year and also named Jackson the NCS Player of the Year.
An ultra-hot college prospect, Jackson has committed to the University of Southern California next fall, where she’ll join Salesian alumni Mariya and Minyon Moore (sisters).
Jackson’s story appears somewhat similar to the one unfolding right now involving emerging NBA great Kawhi Leonard, who has been dominating in the NBA playoffs this season. Once mainly a defensive star, the Toronto Raptors small forward has vastly improved on offense, making him practically unstoppable.
Pezzola remembers Jackson back when she was in middle school and participating in a Salesian youth clinic.
In her freshman year at Salesian, Jackson “took to coaching very well; she’s a very coachable kid,” said Pezzola.
Jackson was initially prone to fouling, but learned through coaching, hard work and watching game film to become dominant on defense. At that time, Salesian had scorers and didn’t need a lot of offensive production from Jackson. But her potential was there, Pezzola said.
“She really worked on it,” he said.
And when her team needed it, Jackson’s offense came alive.
“She can shoot the 3, she’s got the hook shot down inside, it took her a couple of years to master,” her coach said. “By her senior year, she was really unstoppable down low. She became a total weapon.”
It typically takes longer to develop taller players, said Pezzola. They work with longer bodies, he said, and a post player’s footwork skills are crucial and difficult to learn. To be at Jackson’s level, you have to put in the work.
“It was repetition, repetition, repetition,” Pezzola said.
And, yes, to Jackson’s point, it was also support from her team. An assistant coach, former college player Justin Reid, was credited with encouraging her development. Her teammates also played a big role, including stars like Makayla Edwards, who is headed to the University of Hawaii.
“Every coach is going to say it, but it’s really a family first approach here,” Pezzola said.
Case in point: this season, two Salesian starters, guards Nia Chinn and Bianca Camello, suffered season-ending injuries. The team rallied and went on to a 25-9 record, 10-0 in league. The injured players stuck with their team in a supportive role, Pezzola said.
“Four years of being in this atmosphere – you feel, OK, your sister went down, and I got to do this for her,” the coach said. “I got to step up because I don’t want to let my sister down. I want to get that medal for her.”
Salesian went on to wow the basketball world, in part with its 44-41 upset over nationally-ranked Archbishop Mitty-San Jose in the NorCal Open semifinals. The team fell in the final to Pinewood.
As much as she’d resist admitting it, Jackson had a lot to do with that success. And her future is bright.
“I think if she commits in the weight room as much as she committed on the court, she could have a really nice career at USC,” Pezzola said. “If she keeps putting in the work like she did for us, she could be in the WNBA.”