It was the opening minutes of Notre Dame High’s game against St. Genevieve High at the recent Northeast Valley Tournament at Vaughn High School, and the Knights were trailing early, 8-2.
They were overshooting the basket and their offensive flow was being disrupted by the Valiant’s defense. Even though it was early, on the surface it had the makings of being “one of those nights” that teams will periodically go through during a season, and can easily occur at early season tournaments when there are games played 3-4 days in a row.
But something subtly clicked for Notre Dame, which reversed its fortunes to lead 15-9 after the quarter, and 30-11 at the half. The Knights soon flustered St. Genevieve offensively, and also clamped down on the Valiants defensively. St. Genevieve never got untracked in the second half, trailing by more than 20 points at times and winding up with a 57-35 defeat.
And after defeating Verdugo Hills the following night in the final, the Knights racked up their third tournament championship in three attempts. They have won 12 straight games to open this 2021-22 season.
It would be an impressive display by a team loaded with seniors and juniors. What makes this early run more impressive is how young — in basketball terms — this Knights team actually is, with six sophomores and seven juniors on the roster. There is one freshman, and one senior.
“We knew we had a good group of freshmen [last year], but the core of the 2019-20 team was the girls who won the [CIF Division 4A] title,” said Notre Dame Coach Paul Gross. “Knowing we had graduated some pretty important players, we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We had young talent, but didn’t know if it was going to come together or not — you don’t really know until you start playing.
“We are definitely excited about how they are coming together.”
Gross has been the girls’ varsity coach at Notre Dame since 2004. He’s had some very successful teams — the 4A championship team won 27 games in 2019-20, and the 2008-09 team that won 26 games en route to the section 4AA title — as well as squads that have finished slightly above or below .500.
But he’s never had a team — young or proven — that won its first 12 games.
The winning streak is a tad dizzying, but also a reaffirmation for players like Naomi Fox, the lone senior and a shooting guard, on the value of togetherness and camaraderie.
“We get along real well, and have fun outside of basketball. When you’re around a group of people you love, that you’re actually friends with, and have inside jokes with, it makes everything a lot easier,” said Fox, 17, who is in her fourth year on varsity.
“Basketball is a team sport, and you all need to be somewhat connected. We’re constantly cheering each other on and supporting each other. Support is a really important aspect of basketball. It makes you play better when you feel confident in yourself and confident that your team will have your back.”
Sophomore Natalie Villamor, 15 and also a shooting guard, is one of the younger players. But she, too, has an understanding of the Knights having to be a collective success.
“I feel we are a very young team but our effort is [obvious] on the court,” Villamor said. “I get so much support from my teammates, and we work really well together. I feel our future is bright.”
Lisette Meza, 16, a junior and the starting point guard, has no difficulty in discerning what has keyed Notre Dame’s big-time bolt out of the gate.
“We complement each other very well,” she said. “Everyone brings something new to a team every year; some shoot well, some rebound well, etc. But this year everyone had every capability — shooting, passing, rebounding. And we have gotten very comfortable together…I feel that is our strength.”
This is not to say that Notre Dame, currently ensconced in the section’s Division 2A, is about to start calling out established section powers like Sierra Canyon, Los Angeles Windward, Corona Centennial or Santa Ana Mater Dei.
In fact, there’s no guarantee the Knights can win the Mission League title this season.
“Our league is kind of brutal,” Gross said. “Harvard-Westlake was a state ranked team last year, maybe even nationally ranked. Chaminade was state ranked. Marlboro didn’t play last year [due to the pandemic ]; but they have a lot of girls back from the team they had a couple of years ago that was really good.
“We’re not favored to win the league; Chaminade is probably the favorite. We’re getting ready to try and battle those teams, who are all challenges to say the least.”
Nonetheless, the Knights are enjoying what is happening now — even if that joy may be fleeting.
“We enjoy it in that moment,” Meza said. “But after that moment has occurred, we start working for the next one. It’s still game-by-game, and you win as a team.”
Notre Dame is taking a momentary break for final exams this week. The Knights will play one game on Dec. 21, and then get another five days off for the Christmas holidays before taking part in a fourth tournament before league play begins. It will be interesting to see if their current rhythm or momentum dissipates from the sudden halt in the action.
Who knows how long this current streak will continue? That’s not uppermost in the team’s collective minds, Fox said.
“You have to take [league] game-by-game — they can go either way,” she said. “We have to play hard every single game. And that includes coming to practice and putting in the effort [there]. In league, whatever happens, happens. But you take it game-by-game and play hard. That’s what we do — play hard.”
Villamor makes a similar point from another perspective.
“We’re still learning…but our teamwork is very good,” Villamor said. “And everyone is happy that it’s the ‘whole’ that’s successful, not just the ‘parts.’”