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OLYMPIC LEAGUE BASKETBALL – Injury-plagued Valley Christian teams swept by Heritage Christian, boys still alive for playoffs

January 24, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

The numbers keep dwindling for the Valley Christian High girls basketball team, and at the wrong possible moment in the regular season. The Defenders went from 10 healthy players at the beginning of the season, to seven and now half a dozen suited up against visiting Heritage Christian High this past Tuesday.

Despite the small team, V.C. held its own until the final two minutes of the third quarter before the Warriors went on an 11-2 run, leading to a 39-35 victory. V.C. was down by 10 points late in the first quarter, then owned the second quarter to tie the game at 20-20 by halftime before taking a five-point advantage midway through the third quarter. The loss put the Defenders at 9-15 overall, 2-4 in league and in fourth place. 

“It’s been the way we’ve been playing all year,” said V.C. head coach Dan Leffler. “We start really slow, so it’s something I’ve been working on forever. For all the games that we’ve played, we seem to dig ourselves into a hole. But they battled. We have to make better decisions and I think that would slow the game down a little bit.” 

Junear Mansour ended the first quarter scoring with a three-pointer, making it 18-9 Warriors. They wouldn’t score again until there were 85 seconds remaining in the half. Meanwhile, the Defenders got baskets from freshman Hannah Burgoyne, then consecutive two-pointers from sophomore Gracie Verhoef and a pair of free throws from sophomore Liana Lopez to make it a one-point contest. After Natalie Najjar scored Heritage Christian’s lone points of the stanza, Burgoyne’s three-pointer with three seconds left tied the game.

Her three-point play inside two minutes of the second half gave the hosts their first lead of the game and was the beginning of a 9-4 run to begin the second half. But the Defenders would be held without a point for the final 4:11 of the quarter and missed their final nine shots of the stanza.

“Obviously, we have a player and a bunch of role players, and I think they’re running out of gas,” said Leffler. “So, it was really difficult for me to get them to run our sets and get people open because they’re fatigued. I couldn’t really do what we wanted to do, and it puts a lot of pressure on Hannah because she gets the ball in her hands all the time. She’s a better player without the ball in her hands, but we have to have her dribble.”

The Warriors began the fourth quarter missing their first nine shots but were able to maintain a one-point lead until Haley Reitz ended that drought. Their lead expanded to six points before solo free throws from senior Jada Thompson and junior Chayse Chambers made it a two-possession game with 42.2 seconds left. But with Leffler calling for his players to move up on the Heritage Christian players on offense so they could foul them, it wouldn’t be until 6.6. seconds remained before the clock stopped. To add insult to injury, the Defenders missed eight free throws, six of which came in the fourth quarter.

“Our goal is 75 percent from the free throw line,” said Leffler. “That’s a team goal and we obviously were far from that. That, amongst other things in that game, was a problem. I feel like we had a ton of opportunities that…we didn’t finish when we were around the basket.”

All five starters played every minute with Burgoyne leading everyone with 19 points while Lopez pitched in with six points and eight rebounds and Thompson adding 10 boards. The Defenders visit Whittier Christian High on Tuesday and host Village Christian High on Thursday, the top two teams in league, to conclude the regular season. Barring the upsets of all upsets, the Defenders will miss the postseason for a second straight season and finish with less than 10 wins for the third consecutive season. 

“I tried not to put too much pressure on them, but it was definitely a huge game for us, and I let them know, ‘hey listen, we go 3-3 or we go 2-4’, and that kind of controls our destiny here,” said Leffler. “It’s still an option to be tied with [Heritage Christian] and have to play a play-in game. But now we’ve lost that opportunity to do that. We really needed to win today. I applaud the girls that worked hard. We’ve been injury-prone all year, but with three starters on the bench, I was super proud of the effort that they gave to keep us in the game.”

Following the game, the V.C. boys team, which has had its share if injuries as well, gave Heritage Christian all it could handle before succumbing in a 61-49 affair. The Defenders trailed by a point with 4:38 left in the first half before the Warriors, who clinched no worse than a share of the league title, went on an 8-2 run to end the half, and a 12-2 run in the first 3:37 of the second half to put the game away.

“We tried to give them a different look,” said V.C. first-year head coach Dijon Thompson. “We’ve been struck by injuries, to be honest. We have guys out there not really at 100 percent. But we had enough to win this game.”

Senior Myles Harvey sank the first of his two downtown shots nearly midway through the opening quarter, making it 7-7 before the Warriors scored the next eight points. But throughout the game, the Defenders would go on shooting streaks and slumps. After hitting three straight in the first quarter, they went on a one for seven slump before hitting four of their next five as V.C. trailed 21-20 with 4:38 left in the half. 

Then with the Defenders down 41-24, senior Jacob Bayla scored off a rebound and from there, they went on a stretch of nearly eight minutes where they were nine of 11 from the field. The last of those baskets was from junior Bryce Shepherd, and it made the score 52-45. But Heritage Christian was seven of 10 from the field in the fourth quarter.

Bayla led V.C. (13-12, 1-5) with 15 points and seven rebounds while senior Gavin Stahl came off the bench to score 11 points, including consecutive three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Harvey pitched in with 10 points and three assists.

“It’s a grind; it’s a tough league,” said Thompson. “And we’re talking about the travel as well, not just the competition. But we are a capable team. We could have beaten this team and out of our 11 losses, we have six that have been by four points or less. So, we’re competing and we’re giving ourselves chances to win games, and we’re just blowing it.”

Besides the two remaining league contests, the Defenders also host Mayfair High on Friday and have a chance to end the regular season at .500 or better and get into the CIF-Southern Section playoffs as an at-large team. Whittier Christian is below V.C. in the standings while the first meeting with Village Christian was a 51-47 setback.

“We knew this game was going to be tough,” said Thompson. “Coming into this game, we had four games and three out of the four are at home. We’re definitely confident in the last few games of who we have to play. Then again, we haven’t had a full roster the whole year. We started the season off without Jacob. Now [sophomore] Josiah [James], in the middle of the season, missed about eight games. But we still have a chance, and we know that. And we have a good position with home games.”