It was just last season that the Bellarmine-Jefferson girls' basketball team was in the midst of a stunning program turnaround.
One of the high points of that turnaround was an appearance in the
This time around, though, the Guards are hardly an upstart team, but instead are the top seed and heavy favorite in the Division 5A tournament. And winning a CIF championship is the one and only goal for Bell-Jeff.
"Absolutely," Guards Coach Claudia Villa said. "Of course, this is our top priority, we'd really like to win a championship."
Joining the Guards in the postseason will be Burroughs (17-11 record, Pacific League No. 2), which has far and away the toughest opponent in area girls' basketball postseason play in Orange Lutheran (20-6, Trinity League No. 2) in Division IAA, Providence (15-11, Liberty League No. 2) will host Santa Ana (13-13, Golden West League at-large) in Division 4A action, and, in Division 6, Lycee International (9-2, International No. 2) will host Sacred Heart of Jesus (13-10, Horizon No. 2). The Indians, Pioneers and Lions will begin their postseason journeys on Thursday, while the Guards will wait for Saturday, with all games slated for 7 p.m. starts.
Burroughs opened the Division IA playoffs last season with a lopsided home win over Palmdale before victories against Arroyo Valley and Valley View put it into the semifinals, where it lost to Mira Costa.
But this season it will open up against second-seeded Orange Lutheran, which won the Division 3AA championship last season.
Should the Indians pull off the upset, they would move on to Saturday's second round where they would play Oaks Christian (19-8, Marmonte League champion) or Santa Barbara (14-12, Channel League No. 3).
Providence, which has advanced to the quarterfinals five consecutive years heading into this postseason, commenced last season's run with a 50-26 first-round win against Thacher ahead of a second-round victory over St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy. The Pioneers lost in the quarterfinals to Oxford Academy.
"I think it's what I expected, we're the eighth seed and get that first-round home game," Pioneers Coach Andrew Bencze said. "That's key for us, we play well at home and, in this division, every game will be hard-fought."
Though the Pioneers lost their regular season finale, they won four straight prior to that and Bencze believes his team is where it should be heading into the playoffs.
"I feel like we are playing our best basketball right now," he said. "We have taken a lot of hits this year and somehow just kept rolling. We've had to overcome a lot of adversity and I think that prepares you for what the playoffs bring."
A win on Thursday would vault Providence into the second round against Pacific (17-6-1, Mountain Valley No. 2) or Loma Linda Academy (15-7, Ambassador No. 3).
Bell-Jeff made it all the way to the Division 6 title game last season, where it lost to Price, but that came after wins over Lancaster Baptist, Brethren Christian, Crossroads Christian and California Lutheran.
The Guards won't know who they'll play in Saturday's first round (Division 5A is a 16-team bracket) until Thursday's wild-card game between Thacher (13-6, Frontier No. 3) and Wildwood (10-8, Coastal No. 3).
Anything less than a lengthy run for the Guards would be stunning no matter who they play, though, as they're now a playoff-tested team that is 21-3 and won the Santa Fe League title.
"All my returners are back from last year, the whole starting five," Villa said. "We've been there, we've done it, now it's just time to get it done."