If the North Hollywood girls’ basketball team wore shirts with collars underneath their jerseys, those collars would be bluer than the school colors.
These Huskies are closer to being a group of neighborhood girlfriends that play the game for fun on weekends then the next freshman class at Connecticut. North Hollywood is not loaded with freakish athletic talents or exceptionally tall or long personnel. Sophomores Aisha Burton and Subira Mayo are tallest listed players, each at 5-feet 9 inches.
To succeed they had to became the kind of team where everybody was expected to contribute to the cause. And no contribution — be it points, rebounds or defense — was too small.
But this group is something that no other City Section Division II team can claim: a champion.
North Hollywood has that distinction after pulling away from Venice on Friday, March 4, for a 61-44 victory in the Division II final at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles. It was the first City girls’ basketball title in North Hollywood’s history. The Huskies had been a runner-up three previous times in 1987, 1988 and 1993.
Unlikely champions? Maybe, maybe not. But the Huskies see it this title as a reward for their group effort.
“I had wished for this since my freshman year,” said an emotional Giselle Ramirez, a senior, afterward. “We’ve all worked hard just to get here. And we deserve this. We earned it.”
Probably no other top seed in this season’s City Section playoff brackets was as little known or as under appreciated as the Huskies (18-4). They might have been co-East Valley League champs with Poly — both with 11-1 league records — but there wasn’t much else on the resume; a light schedule with no major upsets, no big-time holiday tournament trophies, and lopsided losses to nonleague opponents El Camino Real and Moorpark in a four-day span.
Some of that lighter schedule was by design. Coach Robert Ruffin, a walk-on now in his third year, isn’t a big fan of dragging his players all over the basketball landscape during the Christmas break. “I like them to be home during the holidays. I give that to the kids,” Ruffin said. “I’m a parent myself; I like to be with my family during the holidays.”
Ruffin also has some specific ideas about team bounding. The Huskies have a group activity once a week. It might be a team night at a pizza parlor. It might be a visit to Skid Row or a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. He wants them to know about the world beyond basketball — and that it may not always be perfect.
But instilling the value of hard work and perseverance doesn’t mean much — at least on the basketball court — if the players aren’t willing to work at the craft. And only so much impetus can come from a coach.
After the Moorpark loss on Dec. 22, Ramirez and forward Miya Bleeker, a junior, gathered their teammates for a meeting and demanded a rededication to the season. Since that meeting the Huskies have been almost unbeatable, going 14-1 over that span including 13 straight wins. It includes their Division II playoff run against Los Angeles schools Hamilton and Jordan, Arleta, and Venice.
“We have amazing chemistry,” Bleeker said. “We know who we all are. And we know where we are on the court. I know where my post players will be, where the wings are going to be. And I can depend on everybody to shoot the ball — and make it.”
North Hollywood never trailed in title game against Venice, although the Gondoliers (10-17) made in interesting early.
Venice, the sixth seed, had reached the final after beating San Fernando, Sherman Oaks CES and Cleveland. In the first half the Gondoliers attacked primarily from long distance. Six of the team’s first seven field goals were three-pointers, and the deep outside accuracy kept Venice on the heels of the Huskies.
But Venice, which got 11 points each from Zammiah Phillips and Amy Koshimizu, couldn’t make three-pointer in the second half, and rarely exhibited the patience to run their offense — or (italics) any (italics end) offense. Even when the Gondoliers grabbed offensive rebounds, the ability to put the ball through the hoop eluded them.
North Hollywood, meanwhile, worked both the inside and outside of the paint methodically with a cluster of folks. There was no one Huskies player for the Gondoliers’s defense to concentrate on. Mayo (eight points), who spent part of the week in the hospital battling asthma, was doing damage in the low post while Ramirez, Bleeker and Michelle Huerta got timely baskets from the perimeter. No Huskies effort was selfish, and none of it was discouraged. It was all about flow.
North Hollywood got the key spurt it needed when it opened the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run. That stretched its lead to 50-32, and pretty much ended any hopes Venice had of coming back, especially with the way the Gondoliers were struggling to score.
“I knew we were good. I didn’t know we’d go this far,” Mayo said. “I’m proud of my team.”
It will be interesting to see how much more this pack of Huskies evolve. This is still basically a young team; Ramirez — who led all scorers with 14 points — Bryn Mekpongsatorn and Vanessa De La Cruz are the only seniors, meaning Ruffin could have nine returning players next year.
“This was the best group I’ve ever had in 35 years of coaching kids because they listened, they come out to work in practice and they go to class,” Ruffin said. “I had no one close to being ineligible. They just want to do things.
“I do have to find someone to take’s [Ramirez’s] leadership. Bleeker is one of our best players, but she’s quiet. But she’s going to be a senior. We want her to get a scholarship. We want her to be seen.”
That’s next season. How would North Hollywood celebrate their historic night?
In typical Huskies’ fashion.
“I’ll go have dinner with my family,” Bleeker said.
“I’’m going to sleep really well tonight,” added Ramirez.