The black and white of sports is winning and losing. But it’s the residual product from the alchemistic blending of different backgrounds and mindsets that can be fascinating.
The girls’ basketball team at Birmingham High has something going on this season. You may not know it by their record — 11-9 overall and in third place in the West Valley League, beginning Feb. 2. But the Patriots bear watching.
The starting lineup has only been fully intact since early January due to injuries. But the starters — Karla Aguirre, Taneysha Davis, Ashley Pesanti, Angela Rivera, Jerica Washington — are all returning seniors who have developed a strong chemistry. They are rounding into peak form, and come February and March expect to contend for the City Section Division I championship.
Just as important to the starters as competing is their friendship on and off the court.
Basketball may be the only reason this melting-pot mixture of two African Americans (Davis, Washington), two Latinas (Aguirre, Rivera) and a mixture of Mexican and Italian (Pesanti) came together in the first place. But all five are glad it happened. They’ve learned about sharing, sacrificing and trusting. They have become a unit of no-stars: all five depend on all five for the team’s success. Whoever is in position to take the shot or try to make a defensive stop, that person steps up and completes the task. The final result matters, not the stats.
“The most fun thing is winning with them,” Aguirre said. “The way we all are at the end of the day, I like the ‘person’ that they bring out when I’m around them.”
Adds Washington, “It has been fun. A [chemistry] developed. And it didn’t take that long.”
Washington became the last to join the group after transferring to Birmingham last year. She is the team’s main inside threat, both as a scorer and rebounder. Davis (who missed two-plus weeks with a hyperextended knee) is a guard/forward who does a little of everything from shooting to rebounding to often defending the other team’s best player.
Rivera is the point guard and floor leader. She missed the first half of the season after sustaining a fractured left wrist during a scrimmage against Monroe.
“I was scared I wouldn’t be able to perform as well after being hurt. But I think I’m back,” Rivera said.
Aguirre is the shooting guard in the backcourt with Rivera. Pesanti is the scoring forward who tries to draw other post players from the basket with her shooting to give Washington more operating room in the lane.
They mostly see each other at school and practice. But the bond is obvious and permanent, the players say. “We don’t have to do the ‘mall’ thing,” Davis said. “But we see each other all the time during school. We’re close. We do hang out and and see other. We would hang out on the weekends if we wanted to see each other.”
Their scoring totals are also close. Washington has the highest average at 13.9 points, followed by Pesanti at 10.7, Davis at 10.5, Aguirre at 7.9 and Rivera at 3.0. And Rivera works at keeping all the starters involved in pursuing a common goal: a championship.
“Because we’re all seniors, it makes us want to work even harder for it,” Rivera said.
Getting past injuries was one thing. Accepting a new coach was something else.
Victor Koopongsakorn — “Coach Koop” to the players — came to Birmingham from Kennedy High in the fall of 2014. Koopongsakorn had been the Kennedy girls’ coach the past three seasons, building a 41-29 overall record and winning two Valley Mission League titles (one outright and one shared with Sylmar). But he was unable to get a full-time job at Kennedy because of budget restrictions. When Birmingham, a charter school, had an opening, it quickly offered Koopongsakorn a P.E. job, along with varsity girls’ basketball coach.
Kennedy Athletic Director and varsity boys’ basketball coach Kevin Kanemura has known Koopongsakorn since the latter was playing basketball at Reseda High. He misses his former coach and still good friend, but expects him to do well.
“I’m more than happy for him,” Kanemura said. “Vic had been with me for a dozen-plus years. He was still in college (at CSUN) when he came looking to help out here and start coaching.
“He has developed his own style. He thinks his own way. I tried to instill in him all the ‘old-school’ values I have. I think he keeps them and instills them in his players although he’s not an ‘old school’ guy. He loves coaching. He found a niche working with girls. He knows the ‘Xs’ and ‘O’s’ but is a personable type who can relate well to kids. No one I know has ever said a negative thing about him.”
Koopongsakorn (who became a first-time father six weeks ago with the birth of a son) knew his first season could be disastrous, if the five seniors weren’t open to changes. After all, they had played the same way the past three years, and there was no telling how long the adjustments he wanted would take for the team to become comfortable in doing. But the players were willing to try things Koop’s way.
“I thought it might take a while to get the new system in and have them buy into it,” Koopongsakorn said. “But I saw the talent they had, and even though we would go through some growing pains in the beginning, they did slowly buy into it.
“It’s not that they fight me consciously. But they had done something one way for three years, and then having me come in and bring something brand new … they have made the effort. And I feel we are getting better.”
What Koopongsakorn didn’t know at first was the players were looking for a different structure.
“He brought more of a game plan for us,” Rivera said. “He tells us of certain plays, and it’s our choice whether to use them on the floor. I like the way he has it planned all out. Every step, from practice to the game, he has a game plan. And I like that.”
The Patriots are currently in the second half of league play (starting with the Feb. 4 game against Chatsworth.) They may not be able to catch El Camino Real and Granada Hills (which has beaten them twice) for the West Valley title, but could do damage in the playoffs if they enter the postseason playing well.
“We’re at a good point,” Davis said. “The game against Granada [on Jan. 30] was the best game we had played all season. I think if we keep up our mentality like that, and keep striving to be better every day, we will be a team others have to worry about in the playoffs.”
A title would be great, cementing a legacy for the 2014-15.
But the seniors have something they say will last.
“I feel we can stay in touch,” Pesanti said. “I want to see them 10-20 years from now. That would be cool.”