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GIRLS BASKETBALL – Gahr breezes past Valley Christian in neighborly battle of depleted teams

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X/Twitter

The Gahr High girls basketball team, trying to feed off the success it had last season when it went to the CIF-Southern Section Division 5AA championship game, began this season with 11 players. But when the Gladiators hosted Valley Christian High last Friday night, they were down to eight players.

They weren’t getting any sympathy cards from the Defenders as they were in a little worse condition, suiting up seven players out of 11 but with two starters out since at least Dec. 1. Against Gahr, they started three sophomores and two freshmen while the Gladiators started three juniors and two freshmen. When it was all said and done, Gahr showed why it is still the favorites to go deep in the playoffs, crushing its Artesia Blvd. neighbors 63-34.

It was a game where others had to step up and for Gahr, it was Simarpreet Sogi, who blistered V.C. for 27 points and three steals.  

“That’s actually the mindset,” said Gahr head coach Alfred Howard. “Without a starter tonight, without two starters on Wednesday, you want to [have] the next man up mentality, but actually, everybody should be ready to go. We’re not as deep as last year, so one through nine has to be ready to go because any given night, we have to play.”

Sogi began her team’s scoring with a three-pointer, but with Gahr quickly down 5-3, it went on an 11-0 run and the Defenders wouldn’t get closer than seven points the rest of the game. Without the services of senior Jada Thompson and sophomore Jocelyn Tani, the Defenders tried to find other options and two of them came from freshman Hannah Burgoyne. She and fellow freshman Jenna Van Kampen each scored five points in the first half while sophomores Liana Lopez and Aniyah Peoples each had two points as Gahr was comfortably ahead 37-14 at the break.

“It’s pretty difficult when I can’t do what we normally do because I don’t have the bodies,” said V.C. head coach Dan Leffler. “We need to play man and switch everything, and we can’t because I don’t have the personnel to do it right now because we’re banged up.

“[Burgoyne] is a great player; she’s a good shooter who had a great night shooting,” he continued. “But we’re pretty one-dimensional with the crew that I’ve got right now.”

Gahr was up 19-7 after the first quarter with Sogi getting 13 points on four of six shooting from the field and three downtown shots. By the time the game had reached halftime, Sogi had 25 points with half a dozen three-pointers while junior Jody Colbert (four points, three assists, two rebounds) and freshmen Rachel Fredenburg (four points, 11 rebounds) and Ella Sims (four points, eight rebounds) combined to do the other damage.

“Ella didn’t want to play basketball anymore,” said Howard. “She came in; she bought in to what we were doing. She’s having fun, but also Rachel Fredenburg. She’s a freshman also. So, with those two, Gahr’s future is bright with those two young players.”

“Honestly, at that point, I’m not super concerned about [Sogi],” said Leffler about the first half. “I’m more concerned about us and not quitting and fighting through adversity. Hey, these are the girls we have, and we have to go compete. We’re in the gym now and we have to go. The goal was to win the third quarter and I think we came up short.”

After a free throw from Gahr junior Karen Barrocan opened the second half scoring, the Defenders scored consecutive baskets for the first time-a three pointer from Burgoyne and a two-pointer from Van Kampen. Later in the stanza, Lopez had back to back buckets to make it 49-25 as V.C. was outscored 14-11. It would be outscored by three points again in the fourth quarter as Leffler continued to be pleased with his team not quitting. 

“We’ve played in a few of these now, where we’ve been getting beat up pretty good score-wise,” said Leffler. “Our message is life is hard; we’ve got to do hard things, and we’re going to figure out how to face adversity and keep finishing games because that’s what we signed up for.”

While Sogi was held to two points on one of seven shooting in the second half, Mims had a monster third quarter with five rebounds, four points, all on free throws and a couple of blocks. Four other players combined for eight points as the team is finding other ways to pick up the slack while junior Christine Ho, a key starter from last season, remains sidelined. Fredenburg and Mims each finished with 10 points with the former grabbing 17 rebounds and the latter getting 15 boards.

“It’s the confidence,” said Howard of Sogi. Last year as a 10th grader and this year as a junior, you could see out there she’s just more confident. We really needed that tonight without Christine being here.”

For the Defenders, Burgoyne scored a team-high 17 points and had five rebounds. Since scoring eight points in the season opener against Santa Fe High on Nov. 13, Burgoyne has reached double figures in scoring in 12 straight games, including back to back games in which she had 30 and 32 points against San Gabriel Academy and Norwalk High respectively.

“It kind of goes in spurts,” said Leffler. “Now, as people start to recognize that she can score, we’re going to have to be more creative with what we do offensively. That gets a little more difficult with the girls I have on the floor because I can’t draw it up on the fly like I normally would, like the old days.” 

Lopez had eight points and seven rebounds while Van Kampen added seven points and five rebounds and two assists. The Defenders dropped to 6-7 but were 3-3 before losing Thompson and 3-4 when Tani went down. They will host Bellflower High on Dec. 21, then face Marlborough High on Dec. 26 in the first round of the Larry Doyle Tournament of Champions at Marina High.

“I think to get where are right now with kind of what we’ve been through, I’m happy with it,” said Leffler. “I’m not satisfied with it, but I’m happy with it, and I feel like we’ve probably won a couple of games that people think we’re going to win, especially when we’re banged up after the 3-3 mark. I feel good about where we’re at, but we have a long way to go yet, and we’re running out of time because league is coming.”

“It’s not all me,” he later added. “So, I’m going to start with that. It’s the girls; we have younger girls who want to work hard, and they have to show up and put in work. I demand that of them because I’m going to be here and I’m going to be on time early and so are they. I think we’re getting to a place where we understand the instructions are important.”

Last season. Gahr started 5-5, then won 16 of their next 17 regular season games before going 5-2 in the playoffs. Now, with just four returning players and its only returning starter injured, Gahr has stunned the critics and finds itself at 10-1 with upcoming games against Lakewood High (Dec. 18), Mayfair High (Dec. 20) and Rancho Alamitos High (Dec. 22) and four more games in the Rancho Alamitos Tournament from Dec. 26-30. 

“You don’t get your freshmen until after June or July,” said Howard. “So, we didn’t know [who we would have]. When I made the schedule, there was no Ella; there was no Rachel, there was no [freshman] Lexi [Thomas], there was no [sophomore] Chloe [Beard]. The schedule was tailored for the returners, but with only one starter returning. It’s really a blessing that we inherited this talent because in May and June, we didn’t know [how it would be] with the three returners from last year.”