M. Terry / SFVS 

Putting In The Work — Co-captains Sophia Hughes and Janelle Jiron are getting ready for the upcoming basketball season at Los Angeles Valley College.

Has it truly been nine seasons now since Monica Hang became the women’s basketball coach at Los Angeles Valley College?

That passage of time feels stunning, especially since the youthful-looking Hang is probably still carded any time she walks into a bar.

Since her arrival, she’s never diluted the process she puts her teams through both on and off the court. The rewards have included basketball championships, scholarship offers and transfers to four-year universities. The price is well-known: work with equal devotion on the court and in the classroom.

“I feel that the staff and student-athletes have bought into what I want to build,” said Hang, who has posted a 157-84 overall record at LAVC since coming here in 2010.

“The recruits come in and know these are the standards. When they come here, they know they are student-athletes.”

The past two seasons have been particularly excellent for Lady Monarchs basketball. They include back-to-back Western State Conference division championships, and appearances in the playoffs. Last season the Lady Monarchs were 21-9 overall, East Division champions, and Hang had the only conference team in men’s or women’s basketball to go undefeated (10-0) in their specific division.

This, despite the fact that injuries reduced the roster to eight players. But one of them was sophomore guard Rebecca Islas, who averaged 22.9 points and 11.1 rebounds, and earned player of the year honors — the fourth such decorated player under Hang since she has been coaching here.

Hang has worked with some interesting combinations of players in her time here, and the 2018-19 season figures to be no different.

Even though the 11-player roster is fairly balanced — six freshmen and five sophomores — there is precious little experience, with only one returning starter.

Janelle Jiron is that returnee. The 19-year-old sophomore played in 28 of the Lady Monarchs’ 30 games in 2017-18, and was more known for her defense and hustle plays. But she was also the second leading rebounder (175) behind Islas (334).

“Janelle is a great team player who understands what it takes to win,” Hang said. “She sacrifices her body for the team’s success. She is one of our toughest players.” 

Jiron said she loved everything about last season except for the abrupt ending. “We were mentally prepared the whole season to go through with about only eight people at the time. We knew we had to work hard, and be mentally and physically tough the whole way through.”

Maybe the demands of a limited roster caught up with the Lady Monarchs, who fell to Moorpark in the second round of the California Community College Athletic Association’s Southern California Regional playoffs. “We were fighting, but there was an exhaustion factor,” Jiron recalled. “I think we weren’t mentally prepared [for the playoffs]; we were focused more on the conference, and not the bigger picture.”

That will change this season, Jiron said.

“I feel very confident that this team can go farther than last year’s squad. I feel very confident in what this team can do, the potential we can reach going into the conference and postseason,” Jiron said.

Hang said she has two freshmen — Rachel Capinia and Rebecca Castillo — who could have an immediate impact. But the most intriguing asset at this point is the one who took the farthest route to get to the Valley.

Sophia Hughes was born in Eden Prairie, Minn. But the 19-year-old is coming to LAVC from Wofford College, a NCAA Division I program located in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She was part of their 2017-18 incoming class.

In the team’s pre-season synopsis, Terrier Coach Jimmy Garrity described the 6-2 Hughes as “a strong, talented, skilled post player who…has a tremendous upside as a player. Sophia can score in a variety of ways. She can play with her back to the basket, face up, can hit the mid-range jumper and has the ability to stretch defenses with her three-point shot. Sophia is tough, athletic and places a high priority on being the best teammate she can be.”

Unfortunately, Hughes became disenchanted with the program and asked to be released from her scholarship without ever playing a game there. She started looking around for a junior college team she could transfer to and play for in the interim. A friend told her about Hang and LAVC.

“(Her friend) said call Coach and see what I think,” Hughes said. “I had a great conversation with her. I loved the way she talked about her program, and how she wanted to develop her players. I came down for a visit, and realized this was the place I wanted to be. I worked all summer so I could afford to live down here, and now I’m here.”

Hang is impressed enough with Hughes that she has made her a team captain, along with Jiron. Hang believes Hughes is that rare kind of athlete who could defend any of the five positions on the court while still being an offensive threat.

“She is a hard worker with ambition,” Hang said of Hughes. “Sophia is a great role model for her peers.”

For her part, Hughes is open to any and all coaching Hang and her staff want to give her.

“Honestly, [her teammates are] telling me it’s going to be real good for me and my development,” she said.

“Last year in college I wasn’t necessarily ‘developed.’ It wasn’t ‘let’s work on ball-handling’ or my shot. I think the level of play here is really gonna help me develop into the player I want to be — ball-handling, shooting, court awareness, being able to play all five positions. That’s what I want to work on here with Coach Hang.”

Collectively it creates a fascinating backdrop to the 2018-19 season, which begins on Nov. 8 in the first of a three-day tournament at West Los Angeles College.

The Lady Monarchs are eager to pursue a third straight division title — and more if the team stays healthy and develops the way Hang, her staff, and the players think they can by the postseason tournament in late February.

That is, if the team can maneuver through the kind of loaded schedule Hang often throws at them

“Our schedule is always difficult,” the coach said. “I like to make it very tough for them; they want to know where they stand as individuals and as a team, so we’re gonna compete against the best.

“I love [this team]; they’re great people. They work hard. They just need to come together and follow my lead.”