The onlookers filling the stands inside Los Angeles Southwest College on Saturday, Feb. 23, probably didn’t believe what they just saw.
That includes the families and friends of the Granada Hills Charter High boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.
Yet it was true. Both squads of Highlanders were deliriously celebrating winning City Section basketball championships on this day. The boys’ team had pummeled University High of Los Angeles in the Division I game, 71-54, and the girls’ team followed with a 59-49 beatdown of Westchester High of Los Angeles in the Open Division game.
They were victories of historic proportions. The Highlander boys hadn’t won a section championship since claiming the 3A title in 1987 — a span of 32 years. And the girls won their first Open championship, a division that was created five years ago.
More telling was the methodology in how each team triumphed. Both played stingy, relentless defense that alternately flustered and frustrated their opponents. And both teams used early scoring runs in the third to take control of their games and seal eventual victories.
“We don’t look like the most intimidating team. We’re not the biggest team, either. But we’re hungry,” said Jesse Bannout, one of seven seniors that has been in the Granada Hills boys’ basketball program all four years. “And everyone works in the system. We’re very scrappy; we want to get the ball. It makes us angry when people look down on us, because we know what we’re capable of.
“It feels so good to finally win it,” said Ashley Jeong, a senior wing on the girls’ team. “Our team works hard every day — getting up early every morning (to practice), and after school. But we made it. We believed in ourselves. This feels really good.”
It was both jarring and revelatory. It may have also demolished any lingering myths about the Highlanders lacking toughness or resolve.
“[The belief that] Granada Hills kids are soft? ‘Silver spoons’ growing up in a middle- and upper-middle class community? There might have been an element of truth to that,” boys’ Coach Don Loperena said. “I used to say the same thing about them when I was coaching at Monroe High.”
“Every year we talked about being the tougher team on the floor. This year it changed up,” girls’ Coach Jared Honig said. “I could count on one hand how many times there weren’t good practices. It was always high-level. Whatever time I asked them to be there, whatever the drills that day, they did what was asked.…I think they know if they follow the plan, good things can happen.”
Since taking the head coaching position at Granada Hills in 2004, Loperena has strived to mold the Highlanders into a dogged defensive group that never takes a possession off. It was the best way he knew how to neutralize teams stacked with more height and/or talent.
And while championships and trophies are obvious symbols of accomplishment, they’re not the only ones for Loperena.
“My validation is playing teams with multiple transfers, that may have more recognition, and upsetting them or perplexing them or taking them to the wire and they can’t figure out how it’s happening,” Loperena said. “They see guys smaller than them who can’t dunk like them, and they can’t figure out why the game is going that way based on the eye test.”
Some years it has worked better than in others. But Granada Hills was not bringing back any trophies besides an occasional holiday preseason tournament plaque or cup.
Until the game against University for the City Division I title.
The Wildcats were effective through the first half, slipping through enough Highlanders defensive traps to forge a 31-29 halftime lead. But Granada Hills came out and scored the first nine points of the third quarter, and led 46-36 at the end of the quarter. Now on top on the scoreboard, the Highlanders torqued their defensive pressure even higher. And University crumbled. Granada Hills would build a 20-point lead before coasting to victory.
“It’s what we emphasize,” said Joel Carrillo, a senior guard. “Everybody can take shots. But to play a solid, full game of defense — moving, rotating, talking — that’s what we emphasize. Not them attacking us, but us attacking them with defense. That leads to our offense.”
Added senior forward Chris Howard, “We don’t look intimidating. Look at our faces, we’re not all mean or anything. But we have a lot of heart, and we’re all one on the court. You can’t see ‘heart’ on paper, but you can see it on the court.”
Loperena, however, wants more for the Highlanders. Or at least create another way people should view the team.
“Last year we went to the Open Division and got a victory, yet in everybody’s eyes this was a better year because people base it on winning championships,” he said. “I’m not taking anything away from my guys. But the way society looks at validation doesn’t correlate in my mind. We did it these last few years with zero transfers. That validates our success.”
Honig had also sought to make the girls team defensively unnavigable. But there was a different motivation. The Highlanders, who last won a City title in 2013, were constantly getting their hearts and will broken in the City playoffs by then powerhouse Fairfax High of Los Angeles. Not much else was getting done in the regional and state playoffs.
This season Honig drove his team — with 10 juniors and seniors on the 12-player roster — harder than ever. There were practices before school as well as after, in addition to the normal regimen of drills and conditioning. The idea was to be able to play an intense level of defense the entire season.
“I [wanted] hard work and teamwork to define us,” Honig said. “You have to earn it. Sometimes you have to go through [heartbreak] to get over the hump, and we did that. The losses made us hungrier for the moment. They were going to do whatever it takes.
“They had a number of games this year where I saw on their faces ‘we’re not losing.’ The early wins over Chaminade and Harvard-Westlake showed me what we could do when we played to our potential.”
Senior guard Brianna Torres agreed.
“My sophomore year when we played Fairfax (and lost), looking at them cheering [their championship] after we lost hurt. It gave me motivation to win it.”
The Highlanders went undefeated in West Valley League play and were the top seed in the City Open Division. They continued their defensive deconstruction of teams by pounding Legacy High of Southgate in the quarterfinals, and slipped past league rival El Camino Real Charter High in the semis.
Granada Hills then turned its attention toward Westchester. It wasn’t Fairfax, which had staggered ignominiously through a 3-20 season. But the Comets — who play in the same (Western) league as Fairfax — were undefeated league champs, seeded second in the Open Division, and had arguably the City’s best player in senior center Destiny Brown. There was plenty of challenge to go around.
Like in the boys’ game, the girls’ game stayed close through the first half. The Highlanders lead 21-18 at halftime, but Granada Hills wasn’t shooting particularly well. And Brown — who, smartly, never forced her offense — was proving hard to contain.
But also like the boys’ game, the Highlanders took control in the third quarter. “We talk at halftime that we want to score the first five points no matter where we are in the game and exceed the intensity of the other team,” Honig said. That’s exactly what the Highlanders did — scoring the first five points — and soon were up by nine. Early in the fourth quarter the lead had stretched to 48-35.
Though looking tired and worn, Westchester took one last run at Granada Hills, drawing within 49-44 with 1:56 left to play. But on the Highlanders’ ensuing possession, Hayley Berfield swished a three-pointer to eliminate any possibility of collapse.
“It felt amazing,” said Berfield, a senior, who had struggled to score early in the game. “[Honig] told me to keep shooting, and I thought ‘I’m missing and my teammates can shoot, too.’ But Brianna passed the ball to me. I looked at her and the shot clock, and thought ‘I’m gonna shoot it.’ I made it and it felt great.”
Even better: for at least one season the Highlanders don’t have to defend who they are or where they come from.