You won’t hear well-worn clichés like “unfinished business” or “it’s our turn” coming from the San Fernando High girls’ basketball team.
But understand this. There’s no “Los Angeles City Championship” banner hanging in the school’s gymnasium for girls’ basketball, and the Tigers are tired of staring at the metaphorically blank space.
“We don’t have a banner. We want to make a mark,” said guard Jessica Tomas, a senior. “We want to leave with a ring.”
They know this is a season where they could be in a good position to do something about it. They will find out how good on Saturday, Feb. 10, when the City Section Division II playoff bracket (along with the other City boys’ and girls’ brackets) is announced.
Going into Wednesday’s regular season finale against neighborhood rival Sylmar, San Fernando was 23-4 overall and had already claimed a second straight Valley Mission League title. Sylmar was the last team to beat the Tigers in league play, pulling out a 39-34 win on Jan. 27, 2017. San Fernando has won 15 consecutive league games since then (results from the Feb. 7 contest were unavailable at press time).
The Tigers want more. And there is a high level of confidence reverberating through the 14-player roster, fortified by eight seniors, that they can do more.
“Last year we were a decent team [but] I can’t say we were solid,” said guard Jacqueline Urquidez, a senior. “Of course I had confidence in last year’s team. But the difference this year — we have a much better chemistry. Last year we wanted to win but, to me, we didn’t want it as bad” as they do this season.
The Tigers have been on a terrific run, going 54-15 since Ricardo Gutierrez took over as head coach in the 2015-16 season. He credits the “work ethic” that has been instilled in the team and the demands he makes on their level of performance for the success.
“I’m trying to stay consistent with it,” Gutierrez said. “[With] the previous coaches it was ‘on-and-off,’ from what the girls told me — especially conditioning. Now we don’t really have an off-season. Other than the [three-week] dead period we are working hard year-round now, and that has made a difference.”
The addition of Daniela Ornelas, a junior who transferred here from Alemany High, has also made a difference by giving the Tigers another strong guard and experienced player. She’s happy the transfer has been smooth; Ornelas happens to be Gutierrez’ stepdaughter, which could have — unintentionally or otherwise — disrupted the team hierarchy that was in place. Both her skin and her ego needed to be thick from the outset.
“Ricardo doesn’t take things easy on me,” Ornelas said. “I get [tougher criticism about her play from him] because I live with him. I hear all the criticism. But I take it.”
She said her acceptance by the team, however, was “almost immediate. Our first game. I love the fact of how patient they were with me. I did start out new and stuff, but they welcomed me very well.”
Urquidez, for one, didn’t think there would be a problem having previously played with and against Ornelas in youth recreation leagues.
“I knew who she was,” Urquidez said. “I knew what she was capable of. She’s fun to be around and a good teammate.
“Some new, incoming players, when they take a spot or go to varsity automatically, other [players] can think negatively — ‘because she’s the coach’s daughter she’s getting the preference.’ But with us, it’s not like that. She’s been playing a lot longer than us, and knows more fundamentals than anyone else. She’s earned her spot, and is where she needs to be in this program.”
The Tigers thought they were good enough to be a City champion last season, winning the league and going 21-6 overall. But they were knocked out of the Division II playoffs by Cleveland in the semifinals. Cleveland wound up winning the championship.
“Not a practice or game goes by where we don’t think about that loss,” Gutierrez said.
Tomas agrees, adding the players have a better understanding of why they lost.
“We can’t keep our heads down,” she said. “If we start to get behind on the scoreboard, we have to keep trying. That’s what I feel [didn’t] happened last year with the Cleveland game. We started losing, and then there were mistakes and turnovers.
“No matter how we’re playing, we have to have a good mindset about our team. We have to think positive in the game.”
This season, San Fernando’s only loss to another City team had been to Dorsey High of Los Angeles in a tournament. The other losses, also in tournaments, were to Southern Section teams Dominguez High of Compton, Santa Monica High, and Leuzinger High of Lawndale.
They believe they are playing well and peaking at the right time. But that’s another cliché to avoid.
Instead, the Tigers are primed to go into the playoffs, both emotionally and physically.
“Like Jessica said, if another team comes out a little stronger than us and starts scoring more than we do, we can’t put our heads down,” Urquidez said. “We’ve got to keep pushing through. Once we walk onto the court and we know it’s playoffs, everyone needs to think positive. Let’s show them what we’re made of.”