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It’s Unanimous! : Morningside Girls Are the Cream of the South Bay Preseason Crop as Palos Verdes Waits in the Wings

Coaches Frank Scott of the girls basketball team at Morningside High and Wendell Yoshida of Palos Verdes are experts at downplaying preseason rankings and hype.

“My team would rather see themselves as underdogs,” said Yoshida. “There are a lot of accolades that go with being at the top, but there’s also a lot of pressure.”

Given the choice, the coaches would probably take players like All-American Lisa Leslie of Morningside and the Burge sisters of Palos Verdes and deal with the lofty rankings. “I think we’re a little overrated,” said Scott, in his ninth year at Morningside. “I wish they had put us near the bottom.” Sorry coach, we have to agree with the preseason top 10 teams in the South Bay area, as picked by a survey of area coaches:

1. Morningside--Most South Bay coaches say they will wait and see how their teams will do, but the vote is unanimous on Morningside. The Lady Monarchs have it all. Cal-Hi Sports picked the Lady Monarchs No. 1 in the state, an inaccurate ranking according to Coach Scott, since Lynwood star Linda Watson decided against transferring to Morningside as planned.

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Morningside boasts one of the top players in the nation, 6-5 junior center Leslie. She averaged 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 blocked shots per game last year as a sophomore and was an All-Southern Section first-team pick, leading the Monarchs to the CIF 4-A title and the state championship game, which they lost by 1 point.

“If you need a point, she’ll get it,” Scott said. “She’s unstoppable inside.” If Leslie is miraculously stopped, senior point guard JoJo Witherspoon and senior forward Janet Davis are just as willing to score.

Scott said his young team--only one senior starts--and high ranking will be tested early. They play a grueling preseason of three tournaments. Teams included in the tournament fields are Oakland Fremont, the team that beat Morningside in the Division I state final last year; Sacramento Grant, the Division II state champion; nationally ranked Louisville (Ky.) Southern, and perennial Southern Section power Santa Barbara.

2. Palos Verdes--If Morningside stumbles in the early season it could be at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions where they may face Palos Verdes. The Sea Kings are definitely the Queens of the Hill. PV has two of the best players in the state, and surely the best set of twins--Heather and Heidi Burge. Together, the 6-5 Burge sisters averaged 40 points and 21 rebounds a game and were both first-team All-CIF 3-A Southern Section. Coach Yoshida thinks the Heather and Heidi show will only get better in their senior year, since the Burges have improved their speed and are entering only their fourth year of basketball. Next year the Burges will be playing at the University of Virginia, but first they’ll be concentrating on this year.

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The Sea Kings return two other starters from the team that won the 3-A CIF championship and lost in the state final to Grant of Sacramento. PV’s opponents will not only have to contend with the Burge sisters but also with a quick, experienced team. “Last year we played more of a half-court game,” Yoshida said. “We have the speed to run this year.”

The other returning starters are 6-0 forward Mary Maloney and 5-6 guard Susan Wilhite. Yoshida said his players want to win the state championship, but he warned that much can happen between now and March, so he is trying to keep the team focused on playing hard and “concentrating on the game of basketball.”

3. Bishop Montgomery--Down the Hill from PV, the Bishop Montgomery Knights and Coach Cynthia Mitchell are anxious to get the season started and could be the surprise of the South Bay.

“I’ve got a real good team,” Mitchell says. “They’re willing to work harder than any other team I’ve ever had.”

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Mitchell is justifiably excited. The Knights return four starters, including second-team All-CIF performers Tara Thomas and Shelly Graham in the front court. Senior forward Monica Wood has shown tremendous improvement. Sophomore point guard Lily Cabaleiro will run the offense. Mitchell said the Knights have prepared themselves better than any other team she’s worked with in her four years at Bishop Montgomery.

Bishop Montgomery’s biggest problem is its league with tough Angelus teams Mater Dei and St. Joseph’s. When March rolls around though, look for the Knights to be in the playoffs.

4. Carson--"If we don’t do it this year we’re in trouble,” said Coach Jay Park. Park welcomes back one of the top City Section players in 5-11 senior center Sonya Alafua who missed last season with a broken ankle. The Colts sport a veteran team with nine seniors who have been in the program since Park took over at Carson four years ago. Senior forward Tafelala Lesa can “board and score” with anyone, Park says.

Last year the Colts lost in the first round of the playoffs, but Park thinks players like Alafua, guard Julie Ogata and forward Freda Fowler can take them further. “If we play to our potential we should meet Washington in the City finals,” he said.

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5. Banning--Banning and Carson figure to fight it out for the Pacific League championship of the City Southern Conference. Last year the Pilots reached the City semifinals with five talented starters and two players on the bench. Ranks were thin, but talent was deep. This year the situation is reversed. Coach Dave De Labey has only one returning starter, All-City guard Candice Burnett. Senior Leticia Amos will help in the back court, as will 5-8 Dominguez transfer Latrice Stingley. Banning’s roster has swelled to 12, but the front-court players lack experience. De Labey said the Pilots will once again “go at it” with a full-court pressing defense,

6. Inglewood--Coach Arnold Blalark went 13-8 in his first season with the Lady Sentinels and hopes to win about 20 games in his second campaign. “Everybody’s excited about the season,” Blalark said. Junior forward-center Nicole Blue and senior guard Stasha Crawford are the top returning Lady Sentinels. Inglewood’s roster is speckled with sophomores, providing what Blalark calls a “good mix of talent.” Inglewood does not have a sixth-period basketball class like many schools and that, Blalark says, might cause a slow start for his team. Other obstacles include Palos Verdes in the Bay League, but experience and talent should put the Lady Sentinels in the league’s top three.

7. Hawthorne--Coach John Wheeler returns only four players, but three were starters last year. Senior guard Naisha Williams is an exceptional ball handler and floor leader. One South Bay coach said she looks like “one of those darting fish in an aquarium.” The Cougars do not have much height. Forward Illana Mazingo is one of the tallest players at 5-9 1/2. Hawthorne might have an experience problem since it did not compete in the summer.

“The girls were working and we didn’t have enough players,” said Wheeler. “It might affect us.” The Cougars will have to gel quickly to compete in the Bay League, a trick not below the talent of fifth-year Coach Wheeler.

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8. Redondo--The good news is that Redondo is out of the same league as Palos Verdes; the bad news is they’re now in the Ocean League with Morningside. The Sea Hawks are coming off a fantastic year in which they reached the CIF semifinals and won 16 of 22 games. “Every game we lost last year was to a league champion, including a 4-point loss to PV,” said Coach Tim Ammentorp, in his fourth year at Redondo. “This year we’re starting all over again.” It appears that Ammentorp has some of the building blocks to reach the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. Last year 6-2 senior center Vanessa Vogelsang averaged 16 points per game and figures to be the Sea Hawks’ top returning player. Jennifer Spieske will help in the front court while guards Susie McIvor and Leina Alviar, a transfer from Hawaii, will handle the back court.

9. Leuzinger--"I think I have just as much chance at winning the league championship as anybody,” said Coach Susan Haynes-Burton. Big deal you say? Consider the Olympians play in the Bay League, where Palos Verdes is the prohibitive favorite.

“We don’t fear anyone,” said Haynes-Burton. “If we can concentrate and have discipline on the court we’ll have a prosperous year.” It is an Olympic year, and Leuzinger is looking to three returning starters to lead it: junior Kawasci Jackson and senior guards Sabrina Washington and Tammy Clarke. Jackson plays “guard, forward and center or wherever we need her,” said Haynes-Burton. A transfer from Cleveland High in the San Fernando Valley, Erica Lacefield, will be another three-position player.

10. St. Mary’s Academy--The Belles graduated many players but have a shot at the Camino Real League championship. Coach Cedric Hurt said 6-3 junior center Felicia Smith will lead the team. Smith averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds last year. “All she lacks is a little weight and a little confidence,” said Hurt. Seniors Erica Williams and Dominique Nall add experience to St. Mary’s, who lost in the CIF 2-A quarterfinals last year, compiling an 18-9 record. Sophomore Cicely Andrews is among the young players expected to contribute this year.

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Best of the Rest

Westchester--" Improvement " and “ rebuilding " are not usually associated with City champions, but those are the buzzwords at Westchester. The defending 4-A City champ lost every starter and faces a year of development. The new faces with the Lady Comets include two freshmen and one sophomore on the starting five. “We’ve got a young squad; it will be a rebuilding year,” understated Coach Beverly Pendleton. Still, Westchester has good players, including senior forwards Betty Gilbert and Relinda Reed, who is temporarily ineligible. The Comets probably will not duplicate last season’s triumph but have a good chance of reaching the City playoffs.

Narbonne--Both the CIF and City sections underwent massive releaguing, and Coach Gene Yamamoto is lamenting his team’s move to the 4-A Pacific League of the City Southern Conference. The Gauchos will play in the same league as Banning and Carson and the same conference as Washington, Crenshaw and Dorsey, five of the top teams in the City. Narbonne should field a competitive team, led by junior center Shasta Paris. The 6-footer averaged 15.6 points and 18 rebounds last year. Yamamoto hopes the Gauchos can continue their renaissance. Two years ago the team was winless and last year improved to 6-10.

West Torrance--Coach Kevin McManus says his team “will be as good as last year’s,” but where that puts the Warriors is not known. West was moved to the Ocean League with Redondo and North after reaching the playoffs last year and finishing with a 12-9 record. Junior guard Rosa Olloque, first-team All Bay League last year, returns as does Mary Litzenberg, who averaged 10 points per game last year.

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North Torrance--Lost five seniors from its playoff team of a year ago, but veteran Coach Richard Rosato thinks his team will compete well in its first year in the Ocean League. Rosato expects 5-11 center Laura Collins to pour in points from her center position and junior guard Stacy Onomura to get her the ball. Despite playing in the tough Ocean League, Rosato is optimistic and says his team “could be very good if we play to our potential.” Perhaps they’d be better if they didn’t play Morningside twice.

Torrance--Chanelle Fujimoto is one of three starters returning on Coach Rick Momohara’s team. Though Fujimoto is only a sophomore and 5-5, Momohara says “she does everything,” including play guard, forward and center. Torrance returns three other players in addition to the starters and should improve on last year’s disappointing 4-13 record. Momohara said his team must rely on quickness rather than size, since the tallest Tartar starter is only 5-6.

Mary Star--Coach Peter Ornelas is expecting big things from senior guard Monica Huerta, who averaged 14 points last year and was a second-team All-Camino Real League pick. The Stars’ top shooter is Katie Sunstedt, who will have to take pressure off Huerta. Ornelas took over in the middle of the season last year.

San Pedro--"We’re young, inexperienced and small. Other than that, everything’s great here,” said Coach Tony Dobra. Like Narbonne, San Pedro was placed in the Pacific League of the Southern Conference with City giants such as Washington and Crenshaw. The Pirates may struggle but Dobra is not conceding anything. “The girls know what’s coming,” Dobra said. Junior guard Jastone Vines, a diminutive 5-4, will lead the Pirate attack.

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Wilmington Christian--Undefeated last season in the Empress League in the CIF Small Schools division and may venture back to the playoffs under Coach Robin Roehl.

Coast Christian--Coach Dan Pride says this year’s team will be much improved., The Saints, who play in the CIF Small Schools division, return all five starters including 5-11 senior Stacy Randolph, who averaged 12 points per game last year.


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