A year ago, Joi Turner of St. Bernard High was one of the most heavily recruited girls' basketball players around.
With her quickness and shooting ability, Turner helped lead the Vikings to a 23-4 record and a semifinal game of the Southern Section III-A Division playoffs.
Turner was selected to the All-Southern Section Division III first team as a junior.
This season, however, Turner has been left alone and she could not be happier. She decided to sign a letter of intent with San Jose State in November.
"Signing early relieved a lot of pressure off of me," Turner said. "It helped me get ready to have a big year in going after the goals I have set for the team in winning (Mission) League, CIF and State."
St. Bernard Coach Lori Pawinski is also glad that Turner committed early.
"I think that it helped the team when she did sign early," Pawinski said. "She's a lot more relaxed and calm. She's been able to go out and play for our team now."
Turner first caught the attention of college scouts as a sophomore, when she averaged 20 points a game on the Vikings' CIF championship team.
San Jose State Coach Karen Smith, who then was an assistant at UC Berkeley, was one of the first coaches to recruit Turner.
"It was an easy choice for me to commit to San Jose," said Turner, who had narrowed her choices to the University of San Diego, USC and San Jose State. "(Smith) was a big reason why I decided to go there, along with the fact that I enjoyed my visit to the school."
Turner made her official visit to San Jose State on Nov. 14, and three days later signed with the Spartans.
"I just felt that I could be a big part in the rebuilding of their program and also have a chance to develop my game under (Smith)," Turner said.
St. Bernard, which has dropped to the Southern Section Division IV level, has a 10-4 record and is coming off an impressive victory in the Holiday Cerritos-Gahr tournament.
Behind Turner's 16 points and seven assists, St. Bernard defeated Gahr in the championship game. Turner was named the most valuable player of the tournament.
"She really is playing well right now," Pawinski said. "There has not been any drop-off in her game since she signed. I think that she is the best defensive guard in the state."
Turner has changed her game since her sophomore year, when her main job was to score. She began to take more of a leadership role last year, and her scoring average dropped to 13 points a game. In 14 games this season, she is averaging 10.
"I'm not concentrating on scoring because I know it is a team effort now," Turner said. "I want everyone to have an opportunity."
Expectations were high for the Vikings at the start of the season. St. Bernard was ranked among the top 20 teams in the state in a preseason Cal-Hi poll, and Turner knew why.
"We have a good team that I think struggled a little bit early," Turner said. "We had to deal with the pressure of being rated so high. We just had to try and not think about it."
Joining Turner in the backcourt is senior Kelly Shimabukuro, a 5-5 point guard. The Vikings also have two standout juniors in 6-3 Olympia Scott and 6-4 Marte Alexander.
"They have helped out a lot in giving us strength inside with their height," Turner said. "Now, we don't have that much pressure in scoring from the outside."
Turner, who has a 3.4 grade-point average, is looking forward to college but has not forgotten her past.
While growing up in Gardena, Turner gained her early basketball skills playing against boys in the neighborhood.
"I used to go down to the local park and play with the boys all of the time, and I still do," she said. "The first organized league I played in was a co-ed league when I was in the fourth grade, but I was the only girl who played."
Turner's parents have always supported her in athletics. She credits her father, Harold, for stressing the importance of playing defense.
"I learned that at an early age," Turner said. "He told me that as long as you stop your opponent, you'll win. I haven't forgot that."
Turner is hopeful of leading St. Bernard to its first Mission League title in three years.
"Even though we have done well in CIF and State, we haven't won a league title in a while," Turner said. "Our goal is to win it this year along with State, and I don't see a reason why we can't."