For all the things that were respectable about Lady Monarchs basketball last season, one thing was very wrong.
It’s hard to score when you don’t have the ball. It’s even harder if you keep giving the ball away. And yet the Lady Monarchs treated turnovers as if they had a stack of groupons for all they could mishandle. They averaged 19.4 turnovers a game, which negated positive numbers like 63.1 points and 51.3 rebounds a game.
It goes a long way in explaining a 14-14 overall record in 2015-16 season that ended with a playoff loss to Orange Coast in the community college playoffs in February. But Coach Monica Hang is not dwelling on the recent past.
“Last year we were young and inexperienced,” Hang said, noting that even though there seven sophomores on the team who went on to four-year schools — in particular guard Adaora Obi, who averaged 15.8 points and was a CCCAA South Region All-State second team selection — there was somewhat of a disconnect amongst the players throughout the season.
Returners Diamond O’Connor and Tyler Polk were more specific.
“I do feel there was a team chemistry issue last year, especially at the beginning,” said O’Connor, who plays guard and forward led the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game.
“We weren’t ‘there’ as a team yet. It took a couple of hard losses for us to realize we all needed to be on the same page. There is more of an effort this year. The sophomores are really trying to get that out of the freshmen — to be as a unit on and off the court.”
Polk, a guard, missed most of the season with a torn meniscus in her right knee. But even watching from the bench she could see issues.
“I think we just weren’t as focused as we are this year — mentally, not physically,” Polk said. “We were moving before we got the ball. We were in a rush to get past halfcourt, to get that next basket, and we didn’t have the ball yet. We needed to slow down.”
The 2016-17 roster only lists 11 players. And it usually takes Hang a couple of weeks into the season to fully know the group dynamic. But, she said, she has a good idea now.
“They’re gonna compete. And they’re good. The question is, are they gonna be great,” Hang said of her squad. “That’s where we are. They already define ‘team.’ There is no one ‘superstar — they get the job done as a group. That’s the beauty of it. They play bigger than their [heights].”
O’Connor gives Hang an experienced, identifiable talent to build around. And there are several puzzle pieces she is excited about, like sophomore Yolanda Early and freshmen Zoila Rivera, Ariana Hernandez and Jillian Wyman.
There’s also a special returnee. Lydia Pope played at 2012-13 Valley team that went 23-9, won the Western State Conference South Division championship and reached the Sweet 16 in the state tournament. She matriculated to Cal State University, Monterey Bay, but a right ankle injury that required surgery ended her playing days there.
Pope has one year of college eligibility left, and she decided to use it at Valley.
She likes what she sees so far.
“Since the summer we’ve been developing chemistry,” Pope said. “Everyone is on the same page about coming in and working hard, and that’s what we’ve been doing. I think we’re gonna look good this year.”
It’s also easy and comfortable to step back into Hang’s system, Pope said. “Because of how she teaches us, it’s not complicated at all. She really breaks it down, and makes sure we know every detail. We focus on the details, she drills them into us, so when it’s put together it’s not as complicated as it may look to the outside.”
Pope is not the only experienced “new face.” Assistant coach Richelle Najera played for Hang at Valley before going on to Cal State University, Los Angeles. She wants to become a head coach, and is happy to starting learning her craft here.
“Honestly, she’s no different,” said Najera, when asked about playing for and coaching under Hang. “She expects hard work on and off the court. She’s very meticulous and disciplined. When I played for her, that’s what she was. She strives for the highest quality, on and off the court. And it shows.”
What has changed is the configuration of the Western State Conference. This season it has three divisions, East, North and South. The Lady Monarchs are in the East, which also includes Antelope Valley, Barstow, Citrus College in Orange County, Glendale, and Victor Valley out in the High Desert.
LAVC will certainly put in the miles on their road games. And with only 11 players, they cannot withstand long-term, debilitating injuries.
But there is no denying there is a renewed attention to playing quality basketball again at Valley in 2016-17.
“We will be good.” Polk vowed. “We all click together, mesh well. I’m really surprised how well we communicate.”
“I agree,” added O’Connor. “I feel we have a lot of talent on this team this year. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
Pope is all in as well.
“Just knowing there’s more competition that we’ll be facing is something to look forward to,” she said. “I’m ready for that, and we can get the rest of the girls ready for that. I feel we’re gonna accomplish something great.”