The view from the top in sports is almost always glorious, and the stay there can be brief. Teams often work so hard to reach the mountain top, it’s difficult to sustain that effort once they have arrived. So it’s never fair to keep expecting the same team to keep winning a championship because it is rarely the same team year after year.
That has been the challenge staring back at Granada Hills Charter High this season — trying to repeat. Last year its girls’ basketball team capped off its 2018-19 season by winning its first City Section Open Division championship, ending previous years of coming up short in the playoffs. But four of the five starters graduated from that team. And while the cupboard wasn’t exactly barren, it wasn’t necessarily bountiful. Even with nine of the 12 players being a senior or junior, the experience level and roster depth was reshuffled.
“Going into this season I didn’t know what to expect,” said Coach Jared Honig. “I felt like we could beat anyone, but at the same time anyone could beat us depending on how we played. It was a less experienced group in terms of real varsity game experience. Most of the other [remaining] players didn’t play that many minutes last year. So it’s a really new group.”
But as the 2019-20 regular season enters its final week, the Highlanders believe they have figured out how to get where they want to be.
Despite losing to rival El Camino Real High on Jan. 31, which ended a seven-game winning streak, Granada Hills (17-9) is still atop the West Valley, and can win the league championship outright if they beat Birmingham and Taft. (The results of the Birmingham game played Wednesday, Feb. 5, were unavailable at press time.) Then the Highlanders — like everyone else — will await the City playoff brackets that will be released by section officials on Saturday, Feb. 8.
“I think we’ve been progressing really well,” Honig said. “I thought [the ECR game] was a bit tough for us; we just couldn’t find the basket, our guards struggled a bit in taking care of the ball. Even with that we were still up by two with four minutes left. Had we made some free throws down the stretch, we might have pulled it out.
“But I’ve been so fortunate to have a great group of kids. They work super hard at practice. And we have come such a long way since the beginning of the season. We’ve had our ups-and-downs but throughout league we’ve been playing really well — especially on the defensive end. That’s where we’re making our mark like before.”
The players say the goal of winning the City title again was a legitimate one even if they needed some time to learn how to best complement each other on the court.
“With this year’s team there is a drive inside everyone to win the championship because we want to go back-to-back,” said Haylee Aiden, 18, a senior and the lone returning starter. “There is a drive inside of us to keep the legacy going.”
There has also been a drive in the newer starters to not be the ones who were a drop-off in the pursuit of consecutive championships.
Samiyah Muhammad, 17, a senior, did not play basketball until she came to high school, instead preferring track-and-field. But “my mom wanted one of her kids to play basketball,” Muhammad said, so she first tried out for and made the junior varsity. She moved up to varsity last year as a role player off the bench, and became a starter this year. Though primarily a rebounder and defender, Muhammad has never wanted that to be her only value to the team.
“Learning the game, understanding how to play and increasing my [basketball] IQ so I’m not a liability on offense for the team but can actually score — that’s been my biggest growth as a player,” she said. “This year everyone was saying Granada Hills was not going to be as good because they lost four starters. So I wanted to keep the legacy going and not be a weak link.”
Colleen Navasartian felt the same way. The 16-year-old junior moved up to varsity this season, and soon realized what she had thought of as hard work needed a revision.
“I had to learn to play at the varsity pace,” she said. “It’s very different from JV…definitely faster, as well as the ‘IQ’ required to play it. But our coaches have done a really good job conditioning us and getting us to work together, communicating on the court.”
If there is one thing the Highlanders do understand it’s whatever they do on the floor must be done collectively. They don’t have a double-figure scorer — Aiden is the closest at 9.5 points per game — so everyone must contribute what they can.
“It is a team effort — us playing together and sharing the ball,” Aiden said. “It was tough at the beginning of the year but now we are getting into a groove, and hope to keep it going through the playoffs.”
And when it comes to defense, well, there’s no ideal Honig clings to harder than having the grit and effort needed to stop the opponent from scoring, which shows up in the 393 steals and 453 turnovers Granada Hills has collected this season.
“I think we got off to a bit of a slow start going into the fall,” said Muhammad, who was recovering from a back injury. “But now we are playing as a group and as one on the court. Our chemistry is way better, on and off the court.”
There is no better test to that belief and that confidence than the playoffs. Honig said this could be the toughest Open Division eight-team bracket — potential contenders include Palisades High of Pacific, El Camino Real, Los Angeles high schools Crenshaw and Westchester, and Legacy High of South Gate — since the City Section approved this format six years ago.
“I think in other years it was hard to find eight teams that were deserving of the bracket,” the coach said. “But this year you could argue there are 10-11 teams [that are deserving].”
And Granada Hills can honestly say it should be part of the mix.