Around 5 o’clock this afternoon, following a hectic day filled with pep rallies and spirited urgings from the student body, Morningside girls basketball Coach Frank Scott will load his team on a bus he says is headed for a date with destiny.
The Monarchs who were there remember vividly last year’s 52-50 loss to Fremont in the Division I state championship game at Oakland.
Ahead of Morningside is a bona fide roadblock in the form of Citrus League champion Fontana High, Morningside’s opponent in the Southern Section 5-AA championship. The teams square off tonight at 8:30 at Cal Poly Pomona.
A win propels the Monarchs into the state regionals; a defeat sends them home without a championship once again.
Scott insists the Monarchs have not looked past an opponent once on their way to a 28-1 record this season. But the loss to Fremont, which Morningside avenged in the Miramonte Tournament in December of 1988, remains the prime motivational factor.
“Our main goal after losing in the state championship game last year was to get right back there,” said Scott, whose team has reeled off 17 straight victories since losing to Louisville South in a tournament in December.
“It’s kind of been stuck in our craw since last year to get back to the state championship game.”
So far, so good for the Monarchs, who have thundered their way through the playoffs by beating Rubidoux, the Citrus Belt’s second-place team, 68-15, and defeating Fountain Valley, 73-56, in the semifinals last weekend at Edison High in Huntington Beach.
Mention Morningside and 6-5 junior center Lisa Leslie’s name inevitably pops up. But the Monarchs are a balanced squad generaled by point guard JoJo Witherspoon, who is averaging 16 points, 10 assists and five steals per contest.
Scott likes to afford one of his senior players the opportunity to break the school’s single-game scoring record once in a year, and this season Witherspoon was chosen.
She responded with a 68-point effort against South Torrance, breaking the previous high of 61 set by Shaunda Greene, now at the University of Washington.
“Coach always asks the seniors to try to break the school record and this year was my turn,” said Witherspoon, who has whittled her choice of colleges down to Auburn, Kansas and San Jose State. “So there wasn’t really any pressure on me because I knew about it all along.”
If one wanted to use a cliche to describe Witherspoon’s role on the team, you’d have to call her the straw that stirs the drink. Her job is to head the fast break, make the steal, look for the open player and find Leslie or Janet Davis open underneath the basket.
But Scott, though not averse to the use of cliches, describes her role more succinctly.
“She just controls and directs the offense,” he said. “She is a very unselfish player because she could easily be averaging 25 points a game, but she’d rather pass off for the assist.
“First, she looks for the fast break. If it’s not there, she’ll pass off to Lisa or Janet. We like to give the other team a lot to worry about.”
Jack Willis is in his eighth year at the helm at Fontana and directed the Lady Steelers to the 3-A championship in 1984. Fontana (27-1) has won 22 games in a row since losing to Brea-Olinda early in the season. Last year Fontana went 18-7 and bowed out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to Katella.
Willis, who sends scouts to opponents’ games and watches a lot of films, realizes Morningside will present the Lady Steelers with a plethora of problems unlike anything they have witnessed up to this point.
“I know they are real good,” Willis said of the Lady Monarchs. “We’ve seen them in tournaments and the summer league and we know all about Lisa Leslie.
“But you just can’t watch her because Janet Davis and Witherspoon will kill you, too. Witherspoon is probably the quickest guard in California, and she really runs the offense.”
Senior forward Danielle Carter leads the Lady Steelers with a 30-point average.
“She’s scored 40% of our points,” Willis said. “But I’m not worried about being one dimensional as long as we are winning.”
Kim Barnes, a 5-6 junior guard, runs the offense and averages nine points and nine assists per game. But Fontana likes to get the ball to Carter below the basket. Willis hopes to bring that game plan into tonight’s contest:
“We’ll try to get the ball inside to Carter and work our stuff. If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to start shooting from the outside. But that’s not really our style of play.”
Witherspoon, however, regards all the hype about mechanics and strategies as somewhat inconsequential. What matters is motivation, inspiration and preparedness.
“It feels great to be back here with another chance to get back into the finals,” she said. “This has been a great experience and I’m really glad to be here, especially because this is my senior year.”
Willis claims he can’t rely on those intangibles because he feels Morningside is a great team.
He’s designing strategies, working on new offenses and developing unique defensive schemes. His plan involves denying Leslie the ball.
Nevertheless, if he can’t do that, he simply wants to give a good showing and make a lasting impression.
“The toughest thing, of course, is to stop Lisa Leslie,” he said. “She’s a tremendous athlete and we have a lot of respect for her.
“I just hope we can play our game and not come off looking like a bunch of hicks from the country.