Tremeka Batiste was expecting the Poly girls’ basketball team to be moved from Division III following a couple of excellent seasons, including 2014-15 when the Parrots were 25-8 overall, went undefeated in the East Valley League, and reached the City Section Division III championship game against Legacy High of South Gate.
But when the Poly coach learned her team had been moved all the way to Division I….well, let’s just say the first reaction isn’t printable in a family newspaper.
The PG version?
“I was shocked,” Batiste said. “I thought [City Section] was crazy. I even sent (sports coordinator) Dick Dornan an email asking what steps I needed to take to dispute it. But he told me ‘I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to stay where you’re at.’”
One reason for Batiste’s incredulity: the Parrots have rarely, if ever, had tall players wearing the blue and the gold. This year’s roster is no exception. The tallest Parrot, Emelin Carcano, is listed as 5-feet 11-inches. There are plenty of other players at 5-4, 5-5, and 5-6.
Poly would have understood going up one slot to Division II. But being moved up two divisions?
“At the last [realignment] meeting I went to, we had said no one was moving two divisions,” Batiste said. “I did miss a meeting, so I guess at that one they decided it was okay to jump two.”
And yet Poly hasn’t appeared overwhelmed or overmatched so far.
The Parrots had a couple big losses — as far as points go — to Crescenta Valley of La Crescenta, and Newbury Park; no shame there. They also have a couple of nice wins over Fairfax of Los Angeles, and Moorpark (in double overtime). They took a 6-4 record into their West Coast Holiday Festival tournament game against Duarte on Tuesday, Dec. 29.
Is Batiste surprised?
“No,” the coach said. “Because in our fall league games they were holding up against some good teams. I saw things I hadn’t seen in them before. There was a lot more teamwork. It was like they knew each other. They were passing the ball in anticipation of where their teammate was going to be — and their teammate would be there.”
But that doesn’t mean the Parrots don’t have some inherent issues, the main one, of course, being a lack of size. With the possible exception of the East Valley League (where Poly is off to a 2-0 start) they are going to see taller, longer opponents most of the time — especially in the playoffs. The games they’re playing now are going to define the strategies the Parrots need to develop to still compete in a couple of months.
That can be tough in the Christmas break tournaments, where teams can play four games in five days. But it can also be a period of time where players strengthen their bond and trust with teammates in the face of continuous adversity.
Esmeralda Perez, 16, who was the team’s leading scorer last season as a freshman (15.4 ppg), is the point guard of the 2015-16 Parrots. She, too, was unsure how to first react to the team being moved to Division I. But she said the Parrots are adjusting.
“There are some hard teams in Division I,” she said. “Playing those hard teams is giving us an idea of what the playoffs are going to be…But we’re not overwhelmed. I thought it might be a little more difficult — I thought it would be more physical, more faster. But we’ve stayed right there.
“We have a chemistry. Last year’s chemistry was all right, but this year’s chemistry is better.”
Do they listen to her even though she is a sophomore?
Perez, all of 5-feet 4 inches, smiles. “Sometimes.”
At 5-feet 10-inches, Ileya Rivera, 17, a senior, is the other “giant” on the Parrots roster. She will have the thankless job this season of trying to rebound and defend against players who could be 3-5 inches taller, and taking her shots when she can. She is trying to embrace that challenge, as well as the overall challenge of playing in Division I.
“I felt we should have been playing against higher teams, so in a way this was good because we get good competition,” she said. “I was expecting more, in a way.
“So far I’ve had to play against only one or two ‘big’ girls. But we’re also pretty strong, and we’re fast. We’ve been able to keep up with them.”
Poly would not have much luck on this night against against Duarte. The Lady Falcons (10-2) list their sophomore center Patricia Morris at 6-feet 7-inches, and even though she is lean and not yet particularly strong Morris did seem to dwarf any Parrot who tried to defend her. She was often able to roll off of screens and get deep inside the paint for practically uncontested layups.
Poly also had trouble slowing Duarte guard MacKenzie Barnes, who drove into lane almost at will to set up teammates for high percentage shots.
Still, the Parrots were only down seven at the half, 33-26. But their shots stopped falling in the second half as they collectively scored only 13 points. That didn’t mean the Parrots stopped trying; they rebounded well and weren’t afraid to body the Falcons defensively. They got enough shot attempts; they just couldn’t get enough of them to go in.
The final score this night was 61-39. It was the biggest margin of defeat so far for Poly. But it was not so much a loss as a reminder that this is the world they’re in now, and how much harder they are going to have to work as a group to have another deep playoff run in February and March.
Rivera said the team will continue to get better, that losing the Division III title game does serve as a rallying point.
“I feel we are more focused on going back to a championship. And not just going back, but winning it,” she said.
The lessons learned in December will have a lot to do with reaching that goal.