TURLOCK -- Rachel Finnegan used to make young boys cringe when she fired pitches on the inside of the plate during her youth baseball days.
"I've heard she had quite an arm," Turlock High girls basketball coach Salinda Mabie said. "She'd throw it so hard the boys couldn't hit it. They wouldn't want to face her."
Finnegan still gets that reaction today, though it's opposing coaches who cringe when Turlock's senior point guard steps on the court.
"I enjoyed baseball because it was so competitive," Finnegan said. "When it came time for me to play softball, that excitement wasn't there. I could never get the baseball feel."
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So Finnegan shifted her attention to basketball, trading in her cleats for sneakers and forgoing her fastball to focus on her dribbling and defense.
"I like basketball because it is so fast," said Finnegan, a four-year varsity starter and The Bee's Stanislaus District Player of the Year as a junior. "Things happen quickly and you better be ready to react."
Particularly if you're playing point guard, a role Finnegan has filled since stepping onto the court as a freshman.
Finnegan is among the District leaders in scoring, rebounding, steals and assists, and it's the last category that has been crucial in Turlock's success the last two seasons.
"Rachel's a natural athlete, the sort of girl who's good at whatever she does," said Mabie, praising Finnegan's ability to integrate everyone into the game. "She can see everyone on the court and the girls learn early to look for a pass."
The Bulldogs won a school-record 23 games last year and can break that record tonight against Buhach Colony in the regular-season finale. The 'Dogs (23-3) have clinched a second consecutive Central California Conference title, after going a quarter-century without a girls basketball crown.
The key to a second title has been Turlock's ability to recognize who has the hot hand.
"We've had four girls get 20 or more points in a game this season," Mabie said. "Rachel has a reputation and teams will focus on her. When they put two players on her, Rachel finds her open teammate."
That isn't just luck, either.
"We played about 20 games last summer, and some good tournaments, and the level of competition helped prepare us for the season," said sophomore guard Camille Roberts, one of four freshman on last year's 23-6 team. "It's a commitment, spending your summer playing basketball, but now we're seeing the result of all that hard work we put in."
Last season's success was tainted by a first-round playoff loss to Tokay, but Finnegan sees a different outcome when the No. 2-seeded 'Dogs host a playoff game Feb. 26.
"We have a good frontcourt and a bunch of good guards," she said. "The main thing is to not let up because we're playing so well. We've got to play harder in the playoffs."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.