SACRAMENTO — A foot injury had her on the shelf for the first two weeks of the season. Four games into guard Jordan Olivares’ season debut, her hamstring popped.
In between those injuries, the former Seaside High standout was establishing her role on the hardwood for Sacramento State, putting up college career highs on the basketball court.
Erupting for 16 points in her first game landed Olivares a starting job the following night. Doling out a team-high six assists on a tender hamstring last week showcased her unselfishness.
“I need to tighten up my focus more,” Olivares said. “I’m capable of playing much better. I’m still making silly mistakes. I see it in film sessions. I’m nowhere near where I want to be.”
Injuries aside, Olivares is light years ahead of where she was last year at this point as a true freshman for the Hornets, running the offense since being inserted into the starting lineup.
“When I watch her games, I think: ‘I miss that girl,’ ” Seaside girls basketball coach Mike Turnon said. “She sees things that people do not see. Just watch some of her passes and her defense.”
While the 20-year-old has improved her perimeter shot, it has been her ability to drive, distribute and engage her teammates in the offense that has seen her minutes increase.
“I came into the year wanting to improve my detail to the game,” Olivares said. “When I drive and the defense crashes on me, I need to kick back the ball to the shooters.”
Yet, where Olivares has been a thorn in opponents’ sides this winter for Sacramento State is with her tenacious defense, as she leads the team in steals averaging 2.7 a night.
Understanding that defense was critical to getting on the court at this level, Olivares spent a lot of time in the offseason honing a skill that wasn’t necessarily needed in high school.
“Defense is the biggest part of my game in college,” Olivares said. “I wanted to master my craft on defense. I feel it’s given me more confidence and that translates to my offensive game.”
That’s been evident on the court, as a handful of Olivares’ steals have led to layups or assists in transition for Sacramento State.
The sophomore came into the weekend second on the Hornets in assists at 2.8 per game. Olivares is also averaging 7.3 points a game, more than triple her average from last year.
“The big difference is my confidence level is up,” Olivares said. “Everything has slowed down for me. Last year didn’t make much sense. I was always in the heat of the moment.”
The anxiety has disappeared. The Herald’s 2018 and 2019 Basketball Player of the Year’s focus has turned to mastering what she has learned.
“Her expectations were so high that she didn’t know how to control it,” Turnon said. “She’s still intense. But Jordan looks more relaxed and composed out on the floor.”
When the pandemic shut down Sacramento State’s season last year at the Big Sky Tournament, Olivares had no idea she would return to her parents’ Marina home for five months.
When she wasn’t helping her parents remodel portions of the house, Olivares had a basketball in her hand, dribbling around the yard, following the Sacramento State strength coach’s program.
“I couldn’t even find an outdoor court in Marina because of the lockdown,” Olivares said. “I did a lot of running, dribbling and defensive drills. I don’t remember ever being that long away from the game.”
Which is why when Sacramento State was allowed to bring its athletes back in late August, the 5-foot-8 point guard didn’t hesitate to opt in to play this year.
Yet, there were protocols the program had to go through. Unable to practice indoors, the team took to the outdoors, practicing on the blacktop near the school’s dorms for nearly six weeks.
“We were put into three different groups because of pandemic protocols,” Olivares said. “We did not have an actual team practice as a unit until mid-November, when we were allowed into the gym.”
In fact, Olivares’ foot injury was believed to have occurred while practicing on the hard outdoor surface in the fall.
Nine games into the season, injuries and COVID-19 protocols have yet to allow the Hornets a full-team practice. Olivares missed the first four games because of the foot injury.
As a result, a youthful program is enduring growing gains, still searching for that identity, having dropped its first nine games of the year.
“All the other teams in our conference have been in a gym since July,” Olivares said. “We’re still building team chemistry. It’s a work in progress. We’re close to having a breakout game.”
While no one other than coach Bunky Harkleroad has been in COVID-19 protocol, the Hornets did have two games canceled this season when two other programs had positive test results.
We missed a practice when our coach went into quarantine,” Olivares said. “But when we all tested negative, we hopped on a plane and went to Portland.”
Asked to run the offense since her return, Olivares has looked a little more like the player who took Seaside to the program’s first-ever Central Coast Section Division IV title in 2019.
With one exception, according to Turnon.
“Jordan has improved her shot,” Turnon said. “She’s shooting in rhythm now. She didn’t have that in high school.”
When Olivares isn’t knocking down jumpers, she penetrates to the basket, relying on a blistering first step to blow past defenders before kicking it out and feeding a teammate.
“My coach wants me to go to the basket, either draw a foul or create and dish,” Olivares said. “Look for the open shooters. Keep the opposing defense moving.”
While her offensive production has been a much-needed boost to the Hornets, Olivares looks at the entire body of work when judging herself.
“What matters to me is, ‘Did I do my job?’ ” Olivares said. “The physicality of college is different. I was a little hesitant last year. I feel like I’m playing my game again. It has been nice to feel that.”
Contributed by local news sources