The Los Angeles City Section basketball playoffs for boys and girls is underway. And the top-tier level — the Open Division — tips off on Friday, Feb. 18.
This is not to slight or diminish Divisions I through V, which began their playoffs earlier this week. But the Open Division is considered, at least on paper, the hardest championship to win. It’s one reason why there are only eight teams in both of the boys’ and girls’ brackets.
And the West Valley League boys’ and girls’ teams will have a huge say in who are the eventual champions when the finals are played on Feb. 26.
Taft Charter High (16-5), which last won the Open title in 2012, is the top seed in the Boys’ Division. Also seeded were Birmingham Charter High (sixth) and El Camino Real Charter (seventh). All three finished in a three-way tie for the league title.
The rest of the boys’ bracket shakes out this way: Fairfax High of Los Angeles is the second seed, Venice High is the third seed, Palisades High of Pacific Palisades is the fourth seed, King/Drew High of Los Angeles is the fifth seed and Narbonne High of Harbor City is the eighth seed.
Taft Coach Derrick Taylor is quite serious when he says the boys’ bracket “can be won” by any of the eight teams. Often the top seed has the easiest opening game. But despite having previously beaten their Friday opponent, Narbonne, by a score of 58-51 back on Dec. 2, there’s nothing assured about the outcome this time even with the 16-9 Gauchos being the road team.
“I think our first game is extremely dangerous,” Taylor said. “When I was doping out [the bracket], I had Narbonne [as a second seed]. They beat Fairfax, and the only team that beat them in their [Marine] league was Gardena. For them to be the eighth seed, I didn’t see that coming.
“It’s going to be a really tough game for us. But you can’t win a title unless you beat people.”
Granada Hills is the top seed in the Girls’ Open Division. Right behind it, as the second seed, is Birmingham. They are followed by (in seeding order) Los Angeles city schools Palisades, Westchester High and Hamilton High, Eagle Rock High, Los Angeles CES and King/Drew.
Honig said he didn’t see any easy opening games for any of the teams in the bracket.
“All the teams in the Open Division are solid,” he said. “King’Drew is a [tough] ‘1 vs. 8’ matchup for us. This is going to be one of those ‘on any given day’ tournaments.”
Boys’ Open Division
Birmingham won the 2021 Open Division championship in a season that can best be described as truncated because of various COVID-19 disruptions.
But Coach Nicholas Halic doesn’t mind reminding people that the 16-7 Patriots are the defending champions. They are also a co-league champion and the only City Section team to beat Taft. He understandably feels his team deserved a higher seeding.
“We’re going to make this ‘dance’ a little difficult [on the other teams],” Halic said. “That’s our goal: they put us at sixth, and we want to make everyone look stupid. I told the kids, ‘if you don’t like it, then do something about it.’”
Maybe this will work out. Birmingham lost to Venice early in the season — “we were coming off a two-week layoff” due to a surge in the pandemic, Halic said — and the Patriots are definitely motivated in having a rematch, even if it’s their playoff opener.
“I think we’re ready. We’re gelling at the right time,” the coach said.
El Camino Real (11-13) — whose last City basketball title came in 2014 when the Royals (then known as the Conquistadors) won Division I — may have a below .500 overall record. But there was a specific method to Coach Joe Wyatt’s preparation madness.
He was determined to schedule as many games as possible, sometimes playing two nonleague tournament games in one day to accelerate scrubbing the rust his team had acquired “after two years of being away from real basketball.” And he tried to schedule the toughest games possible, not only the opponents but the conditions ECR played under.
The Royals only played two home games, against Birmingham and Chatsworth.
“I like us playing on the road, learning how to deal with [referees, hostile crowds, etc.], learning to play through everything,” Wyatt said. “Our record doesn’t show how good we are; but we’ve played some tough teams, and I wanted to make sure we had played at least 24-25 games.”
It’s why the Royals will have no trepidation about traveling to Fairfax (13-6) on Friday and playing against a program that has won multiple City titles in basketball, and is a perennial championship contender.
“We may be going to Fairfax but…I think I’ve prepared them enough to be where we need to be,” Wyatt said.
Taft will be at home against Narbonne, and Taylor isn’t shy in describing why he feels the Toreadors are the section’s best team.
“We do play defense; and I believe we have the most talent,” he said. “We have five guys in our starting lineup who, in any other year could be a number one of two leading scorer elsewhere. We’ve got guys who put the ball in the basket and who are athletic.”
But the Toreadors are not a lock to make the final, much less win it, the coach said.
“We have to continue to play hard, and value all of the little things more. That’s kind of our weakness; we tend to blow off small details. If they don’t think it’s important, they don’t care. But it’s small things that can bring you down,” Taylor said.
Girls’ Open Division
The Highlanders won the Girls’ Open Division championship in 2019. And this team (22-2) could be even better. Their only losses came in the season opener on Nov. 16 to Alemany High, 65-52, and on Dec. 10 to Chaminade High, 57-47. Granada Hills has won 13 straight since that last loss, including a signature victory over Harvard-Westlake High.
There is one difference between the 2019 team and this group: the Division I title team was a senior-dominated squad, where this current team is more kiddie-driven. Sophomore Marianne Boco (15.3 points per game) is the top scorer, and sophomore Emma Perez is the leading rebounder (10.0) and shot blocker (2.5). Senior guard Calista Arzega leads the team in assists (4.3).
“We’re doing a great job this year, with a very different team makeup,” Granada Hills Coach Jared Honig said. “That  team had a lot of seniors. Most of our players now are underclassmen. We have a couple of starters who are seniors but our main players are sophomores.
“In terms of team makeup, we’re a bit younger than that team. But we figured things out pretty quickly this year, and it’s been fun to see them grow from summer and fall ball all the way through this point and time.”
Granada Hills will open against King/Drew (16-11), co-champions of the Coliseum League with Crenshaw (which was placed in the Division I bracket).
Birmingham (14-8), which hosts Los Angeles CES (9-7), has a similar makeup of varsity inexperience and youthful talent to the Highlanders.
“We’ve both got senior point guards and a good young core,” said Birmingham head coach Victor Koopongsakorn.
The Patriots senior leader is Jenna Holley, who tops the team in nearly every key offensive category.
While not knowing all the bracket teams in-depth — “After the top four teams, I wasn’t sure who the [selection] committee would choose” — Koopongsakorn believes his team “is where it should be” with the tournament starting.
“At the beginning of the year, if you had asked me if we would be in this position, I’d have said there was a 50-50 chance,” he said. “But Jenna was able to lead us along early and now the core players around her have progressed.
The Patriots would definitely love another run at the Highlanders. Birmingham’s only two league losses were to Granada Hills.
But that would only happen if both teams reach the final.
“They have a very efficient offense and play tough defense to try and make you play quicker than you want to. They’re also great at taking an offensive foul; they’re not afraid to step in front and sacrifice their body,” Koopongsakorn said of the Highlanders.
“We have to find a way to make them a bit uncomfortable on offense and disrupt the things they like to do as much as possible.”
Honig speaks very highly of Birmingham. “They are really good. They always play that tough brand of defense where they are ‘in-your-face’ and all over the place. And Janna Holley does a good job of getting them going and pushing the ball.”
He, too, would love a third meeting between the teams. That would mean someone from the West Valley would be the champion.
But both Honig and Koopongsakorn know nothing is guaranteed.
It is that kind of tournament in the Open Division.