By Gideon Rubin
Sierra Campisano walked into the Torrey Pines gym with modest expectations when she went out for the varsity girls basketball team as a freshman last fall.
“I hoped to make a difference and be a part of the team but I didn’t think I’d have that big an impact,” she said.
Her early assessment couldn’t have been much further off the mark.
In her varsity debut, Campisano scored 27 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and blocked 15 shots in a 75-46 nonleague victory over Ramona on Nov. 29 — a performance that earned her Star of the Week by the prestigious Cal-Hi Sports publication.
But after a magical first month in which she posted a double-double in every game she suited up, Campisano, experienced a devastating setback when potentially life-threatening complications from a burst appendicitis she experienced over the holidays required a second surgery.
After a six-week absence, Campisano, an athletic 6-foot-2 post player whose potential is as limitless as her enthusiasm, has returned in time to lead the Falcons into the San Diego Section playoffs.
The Falcons (11-16), who are seeded ninth in the Division I playoffs, were scheduled to play No. 8 Eastlake (17-10) on Tuesday night.
The Falcons lost eight straight games during a period in which Campisano and several other players were out with injuries.
And although Campisano by her own admission isn’t anywhere close to 100 percent since losing an estimated 24 pounds of muscle, she nevertheless remains a formidable presence.
Campisano scored 17 points and had 12 rebounds in her first game back (a 62-57 Palomar League loss to Poway on Feb. 8). She followed that up with 18 points and 10 boards in a 84-41 league win against Canyon Crest Academy on Feb. 15.
Campisano is averaging 19.8 points, 15.5 rebounds and 7.3 blocks per game.
As Campisano continues to regain her strength, the Falcons figure to be a potentially dangerous team should they advance deep into the playoffs.
“With her on the floor we’re like a whole different team,” Torrey Pines coach David McClurg said. “Just her presence on the court, even if she didn’t do anything, is something, and at 50 percent (of full strength) she’s getting us a dozen points, she’s getting us a dozen rebounds and she’s blocking shots.
Perhaps more importantly, Campisano has emerged as the team’s inspirational leader.
“It’s just uplifting for the whole team to see her out there,” McClurg said.
Campisano’s emergence as a dominant player at such an early stage of her development is almost unheard of.
“It’s very unusual,” McClurg said. “It’s not very common that you have a freshman that comes in and starts, and it’s certainly not common that you have a freshman come in and put up the numbers she did the first few games against girls who are literally three years older than her.”
McClurg said that most freshman post players tend to be one-dimensional, playing mostly with their backs to the basket. Campisano, whose club background includes playing on the elite Sol travel team, has advanced ball-handling skills for a high school player. She sometimes brings the ball up the court.
“She can get a ball off a rebound and take it coast to coast and be a distributor,” McClurg said. “That puts her way ahead, that’s why a lot of college coaches are looking at her now, because she can do that already.”
What also sets Campisano apart is a passion for the game, McClurg said, noting that her intensity in practices earned her the respect of her teammates long before she started putting up monstrous numbers.
Campisano said she prides herself for her blue-collar playing style, which she said her mother, Cristina Campisano, who played at Division I Northern Arizona, and her Sol club coach, Statticus Harris, instilled in her.
And as much fun as it is pouring in big scoring numbers, she loves to mix it up in the trenches at least as much.
“I love blocking shots, the physical contact and competing,” Campisano said. I love outworking others to win.”
She attributes the success she’s had this season in large part to her Falcons teammates.
“It wasn’t just me,” she said emphatically. “My teammates helped me so much. We went hard against each other in practice and they fed me the ball, so that helped a lot.”
Campisano did what she could to be part of the team almost immediately after her release from a local hospital, cheering on her teammates from the bench.
“Here’s a girl just out of a hospital who can barely move and she’s coming to sit on a bench at our game,” McClurg said.
The way Campisano has handled herself on and off the court since joining the team has made on impression on her teammates and others in the extended San Diego County basketball community.
“Not only has the team embraced her but other teams that we played during her sickness and her hospital stay would call me or come up to me at games and say ‘my team is putting together a poster for her and send it to her,’” McClurg said. “This girl is just starting out and these kids are rallying around her, and it’s not just our team that’s supporting her.”
Campisano acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding her season would make a deep playoff run that much sweeter for her and her teammates.
“It would mean everything,” she said. “Right now we’re peaking at the right time. We haven’t all played together and we haven’t been 100 percent until right now.
“Nobody really expects us to do anything so we kind of want to shock everybody and show them that we can do this.”