It was doubtful that Granada Hills Charter High was going to lose this particular West Valley League girls’ basketball game to Taft High. The Highlanders have been solid so far against top-flight competition this 2017-18 season. The Toreadors have been struggling this academic year.
But that didn’t change the mixture of anguish and wonderment Taft Coach Mark Drucker felt after watching his team wind up on the wrong end of a 55-15 hammering by the Highlanders on Jan. 12.
“They play with such a high basketball I.Q.,” Drucker said of Granada Hills. “They move the ball so well. They made us look slow. We could never get in front of them (defensively).”
Granada Hills’ 10-member squad is not the tallest — only one player, sophomore Haylee Aiden (6-2), is listed above six feet — or most physically imposing group. But the Highlanders play their game cohesively and cerebrally with consistency. Their 16-4 record going into their league clash with Chatsworth on Wednesday, Jan. 17 (results were unavailable at press time), is not accidental nor padded by victories against a batch of undermanned, lesser teams.
Coach Jared Honig gleefully admits to being blessed with an astute and motivated group — “I feel it is the most talent we’ve had” since becoming head coach in 2014 — and hopes he has given them the kind of offensive system where they can thrive.
“In my opinion, basketball is more fun when everyone is sharing the ball,” Honig said. “It’s more boring when an offense is set up for one person. As much as someone can be that great, this is a more fun way to play — everyone looking for great shots, not just one person.
“I learned at clinic a system for rating shots. A ‘9’ is a wide-open layup, a ‘7’ is an in-rhythm and in-range shot uncontested. We look for 7,8,9 shots and tell the girls that is what we want. And we are fortunate; we get intelligent players who have played the game before high school, and we try to put them in a system to max their potential.”
Sarah Miranda, one of three senior captains at Granada Hills along with Emily Mitchell and Cristian Patron, credits Honig’s approach for her development not only as a player, but as a person.
“I’ve definitely learned I can handle the harder things thrown at me,” said Miranda, 17. “Before, if I was given a drill or something challenging, I might crack under the pressure. But going through the program, and understanding what it takes to be a champion and having that mindset, it has shown me that it’s something I can handle. That I can stand up to the pressure.”
She admits to finally reaching that full-comfort level as a senior. “But throughout the years there has been a progression of being comfortable. Tenth grade, obviously I was a nervous sophomore my first year on varsity. It was a higher level of competition. [But] going from 10th to 11th grade I gained more confidence, and 11th to 12th even more confidence. Being put in a leadership role also boosted my confidence.”
Mitchell, 17, felt she saw the collective scope of this season’s talent came into focus early. Granada Hills won five of its first seven games, then took part in a Nike holiday tournament in Arizona during the Christmas break. The Highlanders knocked off Southern California entries Lynwood and Ribet Academy of Los Angeles, as well as Westview High of Avondale, AZ and Horizon High of Thornton, CO, to win the championship.
“All the competition was good, no matter what team we played,” Mitchell said. “Even if we blew them out, they knew what they were doing — they were well coached. And if they were at the Nike Tournament, they had to be good.”
That meant Granada Hills had to be good, too.
Mitchell adds the starting five — herself, Miranda, Patron, Aiden and Lindsey Romero, a junior — have been together long enough now to appreciate and revel in their chemistry.
“We each have individual skill sets in our own areas, which is pretty good,” she said. “We blend together pretty well. We move the ball well, we see the open players; we know whose certain ‘shot’ it is, whether it’s in the corner, from the post or at midrange. If we see ‘that’ shooter, we get the ball to them. We’re playing pretty well together.”
One key offensive threat has emerged, however. Hayley Berfield, 16, a junior, is averaging almost 15 points a game. She does it primarily coming off the bench with the reserves when the starters need a rest.
“Last year as a sophomore, we brought her up to the varsity,” Honig said of Berfield. “There was a lot of learning, but by league she showed the potential to score. She plays a lot of basketball on her own. She is knocking down shots; she’s a good shooter who finishes well, and is not afraid to shoot.
“Defensively, sometimes she gets a bit lost off the ball. I’m sure by next year she’ll be a starter. But I also want someone off the bench who can raise our level if we’re not playing well to start the game. And she just likes to play.”
For her part, Berfield is not pestering the coaching staff for more minutes than she gets.
“I understand the chemistry [the starters] have,” she said. “I like coming off the bench because I’m more comfortable. My confidence is up there, but it’s not at the highest point. The others have been on the team longer than me. They deserve their spots. When I need to go in, then I do whatever I can do.”
The Highlanders last won a City title in 2013, in Division II. They’ve been in Division I ever since, and have come close to reaching a final; last Feb. 25, they took eventual 2017 City Open Division champion Fairfax High of Los Angeles to overtime before falling in the semifinals.
Could this season have a championship ring to it?
No one — smartly — is making any predictions. The Highlanders feel they are good, but that guarantees nothing. They have enough on their plate right now battling El Camino Real Charter, Birmingham Charter and the other league teams for the West Valley title. The City playoffs are much further down the line.
But that can’t eliminate the feeling that this is a special group enjoying a special time in their lives. Wherever the trip takes them, they will enjoy the journey.
“We can be good,” Miranda said. “A lot of it is mental, as well as physical. We have to be able to push the boundaries of our bodies, and also handle the pressure on our hearts. That’s what’s gonna make us a good team this year.”