If there were victory parades for high school sports championship teams, San Fernando Valley area streets would be a bit more crowded this week.
That’s due to the excellent showing of several boys’ and girls’ basketball teams in the Los Angeles City Section City title games played on Feb. 25 and 26.
On the boys’ side, Grant High (see separate story) won the Division I championship and Valley Academy of Arts & Sciences was the Division V victor.
But it was the girls’ basketball teams that collected the most bling. Birmingham Charter High won its first Open Division championship, El Camino Real Charter High won the Division I championship, and Verdugo Hills High won a third straight City title, this time in Division II.
Here is a look back at the games that were played at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles, and witnessed by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.
Patriots End Title Drought
Birmingham has evolved into a City Section sports powerhouse, having won a variety of championships in football, baseball, soccer, wrestling and boys’ basketball.
But the girls’ basketball team was missing out on the fun. The Patriots last won a girls’ City title in 2010, and that was in Division III. Since being moved up into higher divisions, Birmingham has too often had its girls’ basketball seasons end in quarterfinal and semifinal play.
But that came to an end on Feb. 25, when the second seed Patriots took out Westchester High of Los Angeles, the fourth seed, in the Open Division final, 51-46. Of course it wasn’t easy, but that’s because breakthroughs usually don’t happen that way.
Birmingham (17-8) came out of the first half with a slight lead, 18-16, but when the third quarter ended, the score was tied at 31 and the contest was totally up for grabs.
The Patriots scored the first four points of the fourth quarter then climbed on the slender shoulders of senior guard and acknowledged team leader Janna Holley — who led all scorers with 18 points — to repel any final charges by the Comets (17-11).
You could almost see an invisible weight floating away from Coach Victor Koopongsakorn and the team as they celebrated.
“It means everything,” said Koopongsakorn, his arms wrapped tightly around the championship plaque. “All the hard work these kids have been putting in the last couple of years .… Our seniors really deserve this moment. Janna probably didn’t have her greatest game today, but she willed her team through this. And our underclassmen also really stepped up and proved they belong at this level, at this high stage.”
Holley spoke calmly about the game afterward but it was obvious how important it was to her to feel a championship moment.
“All the time and effort we’ve put in the last couple of years…I thank all my coaches and my family helping to push me toward this,” she said. “And also my team; they kept me up when I was down.”
Co-captain and fellow senior Mia Calderon — who could not play due to injury — could at last revel in winning a title.
“We’ve seen our peers (at Birmingham) win championships and we would come close,” Calderon said. “But we just kept on pushing.”
Royals Rule Division I
Arguably the most difficult championship game last weekend was between charter high schools El Camino Real and Taft on Feb. 26. Not only were they the “one” and “two” seeds, the teams also play in the same league — the West Valley, where they finished tied for third — and know each other well.
Adding to the intrigue was ECR senior guard Audrey Quintana, who had transferred from Taft.
So how do you prepare for a matchup like this one?
“It’s leaning on what you’ve been doing, what you’ve been practicing and working on the whole season,” El Camino Royal Coach Rai Colston said. “That’s the foundation of where we needed to start with our effort.”
Royals guard Grace Marot, a sophomore, broke it down even further.
“They’re my friends,” she said, noting several Taft players, “but I try not to see them as friends and play my hardest. And I don’t think of anything else but the game.”
No matter, the contest was virtually even for three quarters. The Royals (14-14) led 13-6 after the first quarter but the Toreadors were in front at halftime 18-16. ECR was back in front, 30-27, when the third quarter ended, but Taft (16-11) certainly felt good about its chances.
At least they could until Marot — who led all scorers with 15 — scored the first five points of the final quarter for ECR. And Quintana, who was obviously pressing most of the day, drilled a three-point shot to put the Royals ahead by nine, 43-34, with 3:42 to play. El Camino went on to win 45-41.
“I knew it was going to be a tough game,” Quintana said. “When I shot that three I didn’t know if it was going in. Luckily, it did. And I knew at that point we were going to win the game.”
Dons Run Away From Chancellors
Verdugo Hills makes no secret of its game plan. The Dons (22-10) want to run — all the time. They want the game’s pace to be frenetic, and try to force their opponents to keep up.
The system has worked wondrously for three years now. Verdugo was the City girls’ Division IV champion in 2020, the Division III champion last year, and now they are the Division II champion after running Chatsworth into submission by a score of 53-43 on Feb. 26
“These girls are just a fantastic group,” Coach Kevin Henry said. “I appreciate them and how hard they work. This [championship] is just a bonus; they are just fun to work with every day.”
Typical of their commitment, Henry said, was how they stayed motivated through the various stoppages of practices and games the past two years because of the pandemic.
“We met over Zoom all through the pandemic when we weren’t in school, and I made them do ‘Zoom practices,’ which they hated,” Henry said. “But when we got back together in-person last year and had a real season, and then this year when we had some new freshmen come in, we’ve just had outstanding leadership [from the upperclassmen]. They really worked to keep everyone together, and they made the new players feel comfortable. I give all the credit to them; they all just support each other well.”
Chatsworth (11-11) never led in the game, but that doesn’t mean the Chancellors weren’t a tough out for Verdugo Hills. Chatsworth trailed 23-15 at the half more from missing too many open shots and being careless with the ball (12 first-half turnovers) than from struggling to contain the Dons. And the Chancellors were still only down 25-20 late in the third quarter.
But Verdugo Hills closed out the third quarter on a 14-5 run to lead 39-28. And fatigue was now inching its way into Chatsworth’s collective legs and psyches. They were unable to muster the energy to threaten the Dons in the final eight minutes.
Junior guard Nicole Vanegas, the game’s high scorer with 26 points, made sure the Chancellors could not come back with a couple of well-timed three-point shots that kept the Don’s lead in double-digits.
“I’ve taken those shots before and I know I can knock them down. I can handle pressure,” Vanegas said afterward. “And [everyone on the team] is a shooter.”
And, apparently, a sprinter.
“We wanted to run them at every opportunity, especially when they (full-court) pressed us,” said sophomore guard Moriah Mosley. “We were trying to break through and get open layups.”
Added senior guard Ayana Peterson Henry, “It doesn’t matter what the other team does; what matters is what we do. We expect to play our game, make [other teams] adapt to our style. We’re moving, we’re driving, we’re kicking the ball back out for threes. That’s what makes us win.”