The big kids on the block aren’t the bullies they used to be. Oh, the dominant girls’ basketball powers of the Century and Orange leagues still pack some punch, but with a little bit of muscle and luck, Canyon and Valencia have claimed new success.
Canyon (22-4) and Valencia (19-9) dodged the shadows cast a few years ago by Foothill in the Century League and Brea-Olinda in the Orange League and have gained a little respect for themselves. The two will play for the Southern Section 4-AA championship tonight at 7:15 at Chapman College.
The teams’ war stories are quite different, however. Canyon, behind Keri Erkenbrack and Christa Ramirez, two of the county’s better players, swept through the Century League unbeaten. Foothill had gone through the three previous league seasons without a loss.
Valencia tied with Savanna for second place in the Orange League behind Brea-Olinda, the county’s top-ranked team and a perennial power. But both teams’ playoff success and tonight’s matchup were made possible by the fact that the playoffs have been expanded from five divisions to nine.
That put Valencia, which lost to Brea-Olinda in both games this season, in a different division. Brea-Olinda is the top-seeded team in the 3-A, where it will play for the championship Friday. That also protected Canyon from a rematch with Foothill, which came the closest to beating the Comanches in league play, losing in double overtime, 70-69.
“The new divisions help everyone,” Valencia Coach Debi Woelke said. “In so many games it comes down to who’s healthy and which way the luck is going that night.
“But there are fewer competitive teams in each division now that teams are spread out more. That’s a help to anybody.”
Still, in the quarterfinals Valencia beat Downey, a 70-69 winner over Canyon this season, and Mission Viejo, the top-seeded 4-AA team with a 23-4 record. Second-seeded Canyon, on the other side of the bracket, faced a third-place team, an at-large selection and a second-place team. “Bracketing played a great part in our success,” first-year Canyon Coach Bill Fitzgibbons said. “Being ranked second in our division put us into a fair bracket. I knew some of the teams on the other side of the bracket. I didn’t know how tough our side was.” The Comanches found out in the semifinals last Saturday, when it took a three-point basket by Erkenbrack in the final seconds to beat third-seeded Camarillo, 49-48. And it took three free throws by Nancy Amoroso with one second remaining for Valencia to beat Mission Viejo.
“I think (the close game) is going to relax them a little,” Fitzgibbons said. “Valencia is a very, very, very good team. It doesn’t matter who you ask. They have to be favorite because they beat the No. 1 team.”
But Valencia will have to stop Erkenbrack, Ramirez and the inside play of 6-3 center Sheri Rhyne. “We definitely have to focus in on Keri. She an exceptionally good athlete,” Woelke said.
“We have to stay with our game plan--bring the ball down the court, take advantage of our fast-break opportunities and play a hard defensive game.”
Canyon’s game plan is much the same. “We just have to do what carried us to this point,” Fitzgibbons said.
“We’ll play some zone, maybe a little man-to-man, I don’t know yet. I do know that they like to run and we like to run. Both teams have been successful. This final game is just for the fun of it. When you get to this point it’s all just gravy.”