She isn't a McDonald's All-American and likely won't win any Player of the Year awards, but Ridgeview High point guard Candace Wilkerson has filled another crucial role for the Wolf Pack girls.
"I'm the pacemaker," she said. "I control the game, control the pace."
You could also call Wilkerson the difference-maker for Ridgeview (29-3), which plays Lynwood at 10 a.m. Saturday at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario for the CIF Division II Southern California championship.
After all, Wilkerson, a 5-foot-10 junior point guard, is the most noticeable difference between this year's team, which is two wins from the first girls basketball state title in Kern County history, and last year's, which lost frustrating games for the Central Section D-III championship and in the first round of the state playoffs. Wilkerson was pinned to the bench during that run because of CIF and Kern High School District rules that forced her to sit out a year after transferring from Garces.
"It was hard," she said. "I like playing basketball more than anything. I didn't think it was fair. Everybody switches schools all the time, but I guess they noticed me.”
Even though Wilkerson has lived in Ridgeview’s district for years, she had to sit out after transferring at winter break last year because, since Garces is a private school, all of Bakersfield is considered to be in its enrollment area.
“We thought she would be cleared,” Wolf Pack coach Michael Martin said. “It was tough to see her go through it, because she loves basketball so much.”
Wilkerson has sprung this year like an uncaged lion. She averages 11.4 points and 5.3 rebounds — both second on the team to her well-known teammate, McDonald’s All-American Erica McCall — and leads the team with 7.0 assists and 3.9 steals.
“She brought us a lot of leadership and team control,” Martin said. “We found somebody who can bring the ball up the court and take care of business. and the team trusts her. It’s just that confidence of having another great player on the court.”
It’s also allowed other Ridgeview players to slip into more comfortable roles.
Alex Green, a senior combo guard, no longer has to run the point exclusively and can focus on being the team’s top perimeter defender; Mikaela Gonzalez is a spot-up shooter; and the 6-foot-3 McCall doesn’t have to stray from the paint as much.
“She makes us way better,” Green said. “She can drive to the basket to get other people open. She gets Erica open, Mikaela open, me open. We rely on each other a lot, and we’re very comfortable with each other.”
McCall, named Gatorade State Girls Basketball Player of the Year on Thursday, rightfully gets the majority of the attention, and Wilkerson has made an obvious difference.
But Martin also praises his other players.
Green has embraced a defensive role. She and Gonzalez both have improved their outside shooting and taken advantage of defenses sagging to take away McCall in the post or Wilkerson’s driving ability. Senior guard Claire Culbertson, who might have started this year, gracefully stepped aside for Wilkerson. And McCall has made it all work.
“It’s hard playing in that big shadow, but the team has been very supportive of Erica,” Martin said. “And Erica supports them, too. She’s not arrogant or cocky. She loves the team. And if you never saw her play, you’d never know she was a great player.”
Wilkerson averaged 14.1 points and 6.9 assists per game for Garces as a freshman in 2010-11, helping the Rams go 26-2 and reach the Division II section semifinals. She started her sophomore year strong but said she never felt comfortable at Garces.
“My mom wanted me to try Garces, because it has great academics and is a good program,” Wilkerson said. “But I just couldn’t adapt to the school. It was 30 minutes from my house; I had to get up at 6 every day just to make it there on time.”
In both places, Wilkerson has been around tremendous players — Caitlin Bernardin and Rachol West at Garces, and McCall and Green at Ridgeview — which suits her just fine.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve been pass-first,” she said. “I can score when I want to, but I really like getting that (assist).”
It’s been a perfect fit for Ridgeview, which has gone from a good team with Wilkerson on the bench to one with a chance at a historic state championship with her on the court.
“I guess everything happens for a reason,” Wilkerson said. “Sitting out last year makes me want to go harder and beat everybody.”