Jim Agostini didn’t recognize the number, but there was no mistaking the voice on the other end of the line.
Rena, is that you?
“Remember me, coach?” asked senior Rena Dragony as she left the administration office at East Union after re-enrolling at the North Union campus.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m coming out for basketball.”
Just like that, East Union had found its missing piece – a tall, physical post player – but it would be months before the Lancers would develop the chemistry that carries them today.
East Union (19-7) has won eight of its last nine games, including signature wins over crosstown rival Manteca and Valley Oak League runner-up Weston Ranch.
The Lancers needed each of those victories to clinch a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth for the 15th time in the last 16 seasons, too.
East Union began VOL play 3-3, a struggle exacerbated by the loss of Dragony, who sprained her ankle during the first quarter against Lathrop on Jan. 16. She missed the better part of eight games.
Since her return, East Union has gone 4-0, leapfrogging Manteca for the VOL’s third and final automatic playoff berth. The tear has earned the No. 11 Lancers a trip to No. 6 Placer (20-6) for the start of the Division III tournament.
The game will be a rematch of East Union’s 53-49 victory last season in the opening round.
Dragony wasn’t a part of that box score.
“She was a young lady that was in our program as a freshman, and she had a nice freshman year,” Agostini said. “We were set for her to come to varsity as a sophomore, but plans changed. She moved away. We didn’t have her her sophomore or junior year.”
Instead, East Union welcomed another talented freshman into the fold last year, Loretta Kakala, who teamed with Olivia Vezaldenos to give the Lancers’ a dynamic 1-2 punch.
Vezaldenos was named the Manteca Bulletin’s All-Area MVP and Kakala joined her on the first team. East Union appeared to have the pieces to make a challenge Kimball for the VOL crown, but...
The winds of change were brewing and a series of summer transfers would shake up the Lancers’ program.
The roller coaster began with Kakala’s sudden departure. Kakala transferred to Manteca High, leaving Agostini with a void on the block.
Two days before the start of school, Dragony called, emerging out of nowhere to make East Union whole again.
“It took her awhile to learn what it is we do at the varsity level,” Agostini said of Dragony. “She was just about to do what we thought she could do and she rolls her ankle. It was another setback, but she battled, she persevered and she ended the season extremely well.”
Dragony averaged 12 points and she had 10 or more rebounds three times as East Union clubbed its final four opponents. The Lancers’ average margin of victory during that stretch: 11.25 points.
Dragony had 10 points and 12 rebounds in a victory over Sierra in her first full game back from injury. She followed that performance by scoring all six of her points in the fourth quarter of a 58-48 win at Manteca.
By all accounts, she was just getting warmed up.
Dragony posted a monster double-double – 23 points and 14 rebounds – in an upset win over Weston Ranch, the No. 5 seed in the D-III tournament.
And with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth, Dragony was one of three Lancer players to notch a double-double in a win over Central Catholic. She had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Agostini said her presence alone frees up others, like Vezaldenos, Ruby Daube and Anna Wood, to find their sweet spots on the floor.
“She’s the type of player that blends right in and gives us a better balance,” Agostini said. “This is not a negative thing toward Loretta, because she’s a great player. If we would have had Loretta we would have had to run more sets for her because she’s so dominant.
“But this has brought us balance. We’ve had great balance all year.”
Tonight, Dragony will likely be locked up against one of the section’s premier juniors in Baylee Vanderdoes, who is averaging 16.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks for the Lady Hillmen.
Vanderdoes has received scholarship offers from San Diego State, Loyola Marymount, Florida Atlantic University and San Francisco, according to the Auburn Journal.
At 6 feet, 1 inch, Vanderdoes can be a bear on the low block, but also has the ability to stretch the defense out to the 3-point line. She is second on the team in 3-point shooting, converting 25 of 85.
“We respect them,” Agostini said, “but we’re going up there believing we can win a basketball game.”