Esmeralda Perez (left) and Monica Perla

The Poly Parrots girls’ basketball season is shaping up to be a real Horatio Alger story. Or maybe we should call it a Henrietta Alger story.

A group of 11 players who, as far as height goes, range from microscopic to barely there have won 14 of 20 games (through Jan. 19).  They stand atop of the East Valley League, a half-game ahead of North Hollywood and a game in front of Grant going into league play this week. If the season ended today they would probably be one of the top four seeds in the City Section Division III playoffs.

And the Parrots are not taking baby steps to get there. They are taking fearless ones.

That’s right, fearless. As in playing hard and free, willing to take any and all challenges.

Tremeka Batiste has been trying to cultivate that kind of attitude since she became head coach here in 2003. Not even her best team, which posted a 22-7 record in 2008-09, won the league, and reached the City Division II semifinals, avoided periods of self-doubt. Nor did last year’s team, which went 19-10 and were co-champs of the East Valley (with Monroe) yet lost in the first round of the Division playoffs to Sylmar.

But Batiste said she saw what she had been looking for in this group before the 2014-15 season started. 

“We were playing Canyon in the fall league,” Batiste said. “Canyon is a big team, and in the past they would have panicked. But they didn’t panic; they started boxing them out and even if Canyon made a run they wouldn’t react — they just kept shooting.

“It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I don’t know if they noticed. I don’t know if they even think about it, to be honest. Last year I had some players that expressed their fear, but no one is doing that this year. And that’s why there’s a difference.”

Leading the charge are a senior and a freshman who are, simply, the short and the short of it for Poly.

Monica Perla, 17, is the senior, a 5-feet (if she’s lucky) point guard who has grown (no pun intended) from an intimidated bench warmer into a confident floor leader in her four years here. The transformation wasn’t always painless or rapid, But Perla was determined to be more than just a body in uniform.

“As a freshman I was scared to try new things. I was afraid of what the crowd would think, what Coach would think,” said Perla, who averages 5.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and four assists. “I got over it by the end of my sophomore year. It’s when I started to feel confident in myself, and practicing more so I could be better, and not so afraid to try things. And now, as a senior, it’s like if you mess up it doesn’t matter.”

Esmeralda Perez, 15, is the 5-feet 2-inch freshman and the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.9 points. She may be new to the varsity this season, but is one of the few players with extensive youth basketball experience. She first just wanted to blend in with her teammates, but as the season goes on, Perez has become more vocal.

“Some of the girls think they know what they’re doing, but they don’t want to say anything,” Perez said. “You have to tell them and then it’s ‘Oh, I understand.’”

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Poly doesn’t wear down teams with strength and size. Not when the tallest player is listed at 5-11, and that might depend on how much tread is on her sneakers.

“This is the smallest team I ever had,” Batiste said. 

The Parrots, instead, depend on speed, smarts and stamina. Defensively they swarm like piranhas around fresh meat. Offensively they run at every chance and look to get a shot off before the opponents can get set. They do all they can to pester, disorient and exhaust people.

“We pressure on defense, depending on the team,” Batiste said. “If it’s a skilled team, then we have to play smarter because [the opponent] won’t be rattled as much. But the idea is to put pressure, pressure, and pressure. Tempo can be our weapon.”

The formula works more often than not. Against Arleta on Friday, Jan. 16, the Parrots caused the Mustangs to implode under the weight of their own turnovers and missed shots. A 29-7 second quarter broke open a close game that Poly went on to win, 77-36, at Arleta.

But against Carson on Monday, Jan. 19, the Parrots couldn’t fluster the Colts enough, and lurched through to a frustrating 53-38 loss at West Los Angeles College.

It’s not the way the Parrots wanted to begin this week, especially with their first meetings with North Hollywood on Jan. 21, and Grant on Jan. 23 the teams they expect to battle for the league title. Both games are at Poly. The Parrots are also without the services of their other key player, senior guard Isabella Lopez, who has been sidelined due to a high ankle sprain sustained against LACES back Dec. 30.

But Poly is flying full speed ahead. Perla will keep pushing the tempo and pushing her teammates toward new heights — or at least more than one playoff game. She said she is still feeling the pain of last year’s quick postseason exit.

“That [loss] bothered me,” Perla said. “I don’t want to lose in the first round this year because of last year. And I know we’re a better team this year because we want it more.”

 Perez’s view of the team is an uncomplicated one. “We should understand by now (the importance of playing together). We’ve lost games playing as individuals. The games we won, we won as team,” she said. 

It will be fun, and somewhat nerve-wracking, for Batiste and the Poly fan base to see how this season plays out. The Parrots have never won a City girls’ basketball championship, and it’s still too early to think about it. But if the Parrots can repeat as league champions, that should help provide a favorable seeding for the Division III playoffs. And then who knows, especially if Lopez can return.

As with everything else unfolding in the 2014-15 season don’t expect the Parrots to think small.

“A league championship is within reach. The playoffs are within reach. They have the ability to go all the way,” Batiste said of her team. “It doesn’t mean they’re going all the way to bring it. But they have the ability. And I’ve got faith in their ability.”

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