You almost never identify a shot in the first quarter of a basketball game as the one that decides the outcome.
But that’s pretty close to the reason why Van Nuys High is now the City Section Division II champion in girls’ basketball.
The Wolves were trailing Dorsey High of Los Angeles, 10-5, as the first quarter of their title game was winding down at Birmingham Community Charter High on Friday, Feb. 22. They looked nervous and uncertain against the Dons, who were taller and acting confident.
But then 5-4 guard Roselyn Poommai dribbled onto Dorsey’s side of the court, got a few steps past the half-court line and heaved a 35-foot shot. It hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded to end the first quarter.
That basket meant more to Van Nuys than just cutting Dorsey’s lead to 10-8. It sent a bolt of belief through the entire Wolves team, which went on to win the game, 43-29, and claim the school’s first ever City championship in girls’ basketball.
There were a plethora of basketball title-winning teams from the Valley over the weekend. Both the Granada Hills Charter boys and girls won City championships, as did the Arleta boys’ team. Sierra Canyon and Chaminade won Southern Section boys’ titles as well.
But Van Nuys’ victory might have been the most unexpected of all. And not just because the Wolves had never won a championship in four other finals appearances, the last one in 1990.
If looks alone determined a team’s worth, Van Nuys would be almost invisible, with players that are neither very tall nor physically gifted. The Wolves were also playing under a first-time head coach in Elizabeth Lezama, who had totally revamped their style of play as well as demand higher levels of conditioning and dedication to the game, i.e. weight-lifting and film sessions.
“It was tough in the beginning. They weren’t used to it,” Lezama said. “But the year before, Crenshaw had just shut us down in the quarterfinals with their physicality. So [the coaches] gave them a month break after losing to Crenshaw, but then we had them play fall and winter ball. They also had to hit the weight room.
“We were going at it six days a week. It was different. But we wanted to win.”
Lezama and staff spent that offseason installing an offensive system that depended on speed and smarts. Van Nuys had plenty of both. She also asked Poommai to convert from being the primary scorer to the team’s leader as a point guard, running the offense and keeping everyone involved.
The plan worked better than expected. With Poommai and fellow senior guard Jackie Buenaventura as co-facilitators on offense, and junior Meshiaro De Guzman emerging as a scoring threat from three-point range, Van Nuys won its first Valley Mission League title and was given the top seed in the Division II bracket. The Wolves had no trouble beating Middle College, San Pedro and Marshall to reach the final against Dorsey.
But before the game Lezama could see anxiety on most of the players’ faces. “I think it was as nervous as I’ve ever seen us on this kind of stage,” she said. And the Wolves came out of the gate against the Dons looking disconcerted and unsure.
Then Poommai struck.
“I felt like we just needed to feel that confidence,” said Poommai, who was mobbed by teammates after the basket. “When we hit a shot, it slowly builds it up again.”
“I saw her hit that same shot against Marshall in the first round last season. And she did it against Marshall again this year in the semifinals,” Lezama said. “If she has that open shot…when I saw her set her feet, I felt she would make it. She is very determined. And we were a different team after that. [Making that shot] brought a lot of motivation. After that, it was ‘let’s go.’”
Dorsey still clung to a 19-18 lead at halftime. But in the third quarter, Van Nuys had its running game at full throttle, constantly driving past the Dons for easy layups. Defensively, the Wolves clamped down and forced the Dons into a series of quick, almost panicky shots. By the quarter’s end Van Nuys had scored 14 points and Dorsey only three.
Game pretty much over.
Afterward Poommai reflected on Van Nuys’ seemingly unlikely ascent.
“We don’t get the transfers, we don’t get the tall girls. We just work with what we have. And we focus on what we have, and not what we don’t have,” she said.
Lezama doesn’t want this to be considered a fluke. Although Buenaventura and Poommai graduate, most of the team will return to try and repeat — or compete in a higher division if the Wolves are moved up next season by the City Section.
“When I was a student here, people talked about Van Nuys like it was not a good school,” the coach said. “I want our students to know that anything is possible.
“People come for the magnet programs. Now sports is becoming more known. I want my girls now to be known as kids who go on to get scholarships. Most of the team has high GPAs. And it’s academics first — we do homework, then practice. But if we could also get opportunities to play at the next level, that would be amazing.”