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COMMENTARY: Artesia girls basketball slowly moving back on the map

ARTESIA HIGH girls basketball head coach Shontya Pouncey is all smiles as he holds the plaque following his team’s 46-38 victory over San Jacinto Valley Academy in the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 AA championship game last Saturday at Godinez High. It was Artesia’s first divisional championship since 2003. The Lady Pioneers finished this season at 26-8, the program’s first winning campaign since the 2006-2007 season. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer.

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Current students and recent graduates of Artesia High clearly remember how bad things were with its girls basketball program. But there was time when the Lady Pioneers, and Fast Ladies back in the day, were basking in the limelight.

When Artesia defeated San Jacinto Valley Academy 46-39 last Saturday to capture the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 AA championship, those memories of futility were washed away. And the man in the middle of all this is head coach Shontya Pouncey, who has seen it all from both the boys and girls programs at Artesia. He has been a part of the Artesia boys program winning back to back state titles in 2006 and 2007. He also took over the girls program a season after it went 1-21. But in his seventh season at the helm, he can now call himself a CIF champion.

“We came a long way,” Pouncey said following the win against SJVA. “A lot of people didn’t believe in me or this plan and for that, I’m very, very thankful. When people take roads like this, you can’t do it alone. There are so many people that are involved in it. You have parents, administrators…like today, we have so many people that I’ve never seen before. But every one of those people brings something to the table that has helped us.

“I think for me, coming from a long line of Artesia [coaches], I had a lot to look up to,” he continued. “I’m glad I could be respected and recognized in that company of men and women of the past. I don’t know how many people actually get to have rings on the boys side of basketball and now my first one on the girls side of basketball, and especially at the same school. We’re just blessed.”

There are a lot of differences between this season’s team and the won that captured the 2003 championship under the tutelage of Scott Roczey. Back then, it was a senior-loaded team led by Cacie Pope, who averaged 16.3 points a game, Christian Jackson (11.4 ppg.) and Brittany Imaku (9.0 ppg) plus and up and coming sophomore in Brandi Thomas. That team finished 22-10 overall, went 12-0 in the Suburban League for the third straight season and lost to Mission Bay High in the second round in the state playoffs.

Fast forward to this season’s team, which was made up of six sophomores, three freshmen, two juniors and one senior during the regular season. While that 2003 team had three seniors as their leading scorers, the 2019-2020 team was paced by freshman Samerika Young (11.4 ppg.), sophomore Sydney McKee (10.4 ppg.), junior Mariah Jarnet (5.3 ppg.) and senior Seira Roberts (4.8 ppg.). This team, which ended at 26-8 overall, began the season with 13 straight wins but went 3-7 in 605 League play, which included a 45-43 win over last season’s league champion, Oxford Academy on Jan. 31. Artesia had lost 54 straight league contests before knocking off John Glenn High 38-35 on Jan. 17. 

But in between CIF divisional championships, the program went through some rough times. Since the 2006-2007 season, the program had not had a winning record until now. And from the 2012-1013 to 2017-2018 seasons, Artesia went 27-122 and endured some bad losses. One was a 62-4 blowout to Cerritos High in 2014 and another was a 60-19 setback to Mayfair High in 2013, just to name a few.

Now, the program is on the rise and with the youth getting better and better, the potential for more championships is still there. The turnaround, which actually began last season when Artesia began the season 12-6 before losing 10 straight in league, can be attributed to a trip to the Nike Coaches Classic in Las Vegas that Pouncey and assistant coach Matt Soriano took in the offseason. They talked about revamping the offense and defense, train in the weight room different, run different and make the kids play harder. Pouncey would also bring in various coaches in the past to speak to the team in the locker room, including some of the current 605 League coaches as well as former Cerritos High and current Citrus Valley High football head coach Kurt Bruich, who along with his wife Lisa, came to the game. The end result was Pouncey scheduling Division 5 A and 5 AA non-league opponents along with a few from Division 4 A and 4 AA.

“I’m beyond grateful about that,” Pouncey said. “Most people don’t have that luxury knowing that many great head coaches and them all actually being their friends that I could talk to and pick brains of.

“It also let us know that an 18-0 preseason that we could be here today,” Pouncey continued. “We played a few [Division] 4 teams and mostly [Division] 5 AA. But it was a very, very good tune-up for us to be in the seats that we’re in today.”

For Roberts, she remembers what is was like in the beginning of her high school career. That team went 6-18. But since then, the program has been gradually getting better and better.

“I don’t know where to start,” Roberts said. “But first off, we’re blessed; my team is blessed. Especially me. I’ve been on varsity for four years and honestly, when I was a freshman, I didn’t know if I should have started as a varsity player. I thought that I should have started on the freshman team or the j.v. team and work my way up and show them that I deserve to be on the varsity instead of just jumping right away to varsity.

“Coach Pouncey always knew what he was doing,” Roberts later said. “He pushed me. He took me aside and always told me to just play the game and know that ‘you got it’ and just to be smart and play.”

“Everybody made fun of me,” Pouncey said. “They made fun of me because you want these kids to look nice in these jumpsuits. And you want to take them places and ‘why do you worry about making a lay-up’. I know, but the culture had to change somewhere, and that team two years ago decided to be the team that let me in and let me build it. Our foundation is so strong with those kids, and they’re all out there. The culture has changed for us at Artesia.”

But now, no one is making fun at Pouncey or the program. In fact, in the past two decades, Pouncey is second to Roczey in terms of tenure with the program. After Roczey and before Pouncey, the program went through five head coaches. And who knows, if more coaches of struggling programs can do what Pouncey did this past season, then more programs can also end those losing ways. It worked for Artesia.