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By Loren Kopff
The 2015-2016 girls basketball season isn’t a month old and already the Gahr High and Whitney High teams are facing obstacles they never would have envisioned when the season began. Both teams ended the 39th Annual Valley Christian Tournament missing three starters in their opening day lineup because of injuries.
Valley Christian High took advantage of a depleted Whitney squad that began the season with nine players, which is now down to seven, and used a 17-0 run to crush the Lady Wildcats 63-24 last Saturday morning in the 10th place game. Whitney was already without the services of sophomore Caitlin Cheung and freshman Justine Wu but was dealt a severe blow when junior Nicole Lee, its best player, sprained her right ankle with less than two minutes remaining in last Friday night’s 39-38 victory over Long Beach Wilson High.
“You can’t lose 60 percent of your starters which probably equates to 80 percent of our rebounds and points and steals and assists,” said Whitney head coach Jeff Day. “Valley Christian is not a bad team. We have four girls with varsity experience for a total of six years and of the girls who played today, five of them had never played varsity basketball before this year.”
Whitney was in the game for the first couple of minutes and trailed 6-5 after a basket from sophomore LiMei Vera. After that, it was all V.C., which went on that 17-0 run that extended into the opening minute of the second quarter. Senior Katy Feller, who has been battling a slight illness, came off the bench to score seven of those points.
“We feel Whitney is a very good team and obviously they’re well coached,” said V.C. head coach Dominic Freeman. “We told the girls we’re in for a tough one and despite them unfortunately missing their best player, they’re still a good team.”
Whitney would get three-pointers from Vera and freshman Christine Hamakawa in the second quarter. But the Lady Crusaders scored 16 points in the stanza and led by 20 points at the half. It would get much worse in the third quarter as Whitney scored one point, which didn’t come until the 2:36 mark. After that, the Lady Crusaders went on a 15-0 run.
V.C., which won the last two games of its tournament after losing its two pool play games, was led by junior Cheyenne McKinnie (18 points, three steals), Feller (12 points), senior Elexis Carr (11 points off the bench) and freshman Ariel Gordon (10 points, seven rebounds).
“Obviously to end on a two-game winning streak in our very own tournament was nice,” Freeman said. “It was nice to end on a high note after we feel like we have three or four days until our next tournament. If we would have lost this one, it would have been tough sitting on this loss.”
Despite V.C. sporting a 5-5 record as it faces Laguna Hills High on Saturday, Tustin High on Monday and Costa Mesa High on Tuesday in the Costa Mesa Tournament, the Lady Crusaders are getting stellar play from their three freshmen-Gordon, Calla Anderson and Larren Crawford. That trio has complemented veterans Feller and McKinnie for a team that has nine players as well.
“They’ve done great,” Freeman said of his freshmen. “We’ve done a lot of team bonding and it’s really helped a lot. These kids…they can’t wait to see each other and it helps with their growing up process as well.”
Hamakawa led Whitney with nine points while Vera added eight points. Lee had scored at least 12 points in six of the first eight games while Hamakawa has emerged as an up and coming star, already averaging 10.5 points per game.
“She’s a little sparkplug,” Day said. “We call her Coach Hamakawa. If we’re not in the gym with girls who are there at the beginning of practice; if they’re on the phone or doing something, she starts the practices. It’s not the captains, it’s Christine who does. I’ve never seen her pout and I joke with her all the time. I want her to get mean; I want her to get mad. She’s just always smiling.”
While Whitney will enter the winter vacation with a 4-5 mark, Day feels the team should be 7-2 had it not been for the injuries to Cheung, Lee and Wu. The team will next be in action on Jan. 5 at Calvary Chapel Downey High in the Academy League opener.
“It’s a whole team effort and we’re still trying to find ourselves,” Day said. “I’m asking a lot of girls, including the returning girls who are playing, to play positions they are not used to playing. That’s the big part to me. To me, I’m just a little down because we prepared all fall, four days a week, no injuries and things were going good. Then in the last 10 days, this hits us. We have a two week break now and it’s kind of fitting that our next game is next year.”
Playing for eighth place was Gahr and Mayfair High and with the Gladiators suiting up seven players, they came out tired and flat in the second half and succumbed to the Monsoons 47-33. Mayfair went on a 21-0 run in the first 8:13 of the second half after Gahr had held a 23-26 halftime lead.
The team was already without senior Angelica Soltis (knee), junior Lauren Magno (ankle, neck) and sophomore Naomi Ellis (hairline fracture on right wrist). Then last Friday night against Martin Luther King High, sophomore Nori Smith, who had scored 14 points, injured her right thumb.
“I don’t look at it as being frustrated,” said Gahr first-year head coach Rob Godwin. “I look at it as being a point where we can get our young players a lot of playing time to where when our actual starters come back, we’ll know who can come out here and play on the court with them. For us, it was a win-win. We lost games but it wasn’t about winning or losing in this tournament to me. It was more so getting the younger girls playing time.”
Gahr bolted out to a 12-5 lead after the first quarter as senior Jheanine Carlyle was having perhaps her game of the season. She scored 10 of her team-high 11 points in the first eight minutes and had two rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot. The lead would expand to 22-11 following freshman Hannah Kumiyama’s first basket of the game. Kumiyama, who has been battling a hamstring injury but is one of two players to have scored in every game, finished the contest with nine points and four rebounds.
But the Gladiators missed on all 11 field goal attempts in the third quarter and didn’t score a basket until Kumiyama nailed a three-pointer from the left corner 31 seconds into the fourth quarter. She scored seven of her team’s 10 points in the quarter.
“I think we were just tired,” Godwin said. “Running with seven players and our top three were out there most of the game, we were just tired. And then once you put in the girls who haven’t played a lot this season, it’s turnover after turnover and that piles up.”
Despite the injuries, Gahr is 6-6 and like Whitney, will be off until Jan. 5 when it hosts El Dorado High.
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