Senior Nichole Victoria of Camarillo High has never been accused of being a quitter. But one night, following a 42-point playoff loss to Morningside, Victoria threatened never to play basketball again.
Victoria, then a sophomore, led the Scorpions to a third-place finish in the Marmonte League and their first appearance in the Southern Section playoffs.
"I was so mad because we were beaten so badly," Victoria said of the first-round loss. "I was determined to quit basketball and play soccer my junior year."
Victoria never reached the soccer field. Instead, she spent the summer working on her jump shot with boys' Coach John Harbour and regained her enthusiasm after meetings with girls' Coach Jack Willard.
Once the fall arrived Victoria, a 5-foot-6 guard, had second thoughts about her premature retirement. She discovered she would rather watch a ball drop through a net than slide into a goal.
"I was fooling myself by thinking I'll never play again," said Victoria, one of the top returning players in Ventura County girls' basketball, which sees its season begin in earnest this week.
Willard said he couldn't imagine playing a season without Victoria in his lineup. When he took over the Scorpions' struggling program four seasons ago, Willard selected Victoria, then a freshman, as a co-captain.
"She was aggressive, could run well and was used to winning," Willard said. "I also wanted someone who would be with the program for awhile. I pulled her to the side and told her she had no time to be a little girl."
Although her jumper lacked rotation, Victoria started to shoot down a few school records. In her third year as team captain, she set scoring records for most points in a season (545), most field goals made (202) and attempted (490), and highest scoring average (20.2).
She was selected to the all-Southern Sectio first team in Division II and to the all-Ventura County team for the second consecutive year.
But Victoria was more excited about the team's accomplishments than her own statistics. The Scorpions qualified for the playoffs for the second consecutive year and came within a basket of reaching the 4-AA championship game.
Canyon High of Anaheim defeated Camarillo, 49-48.
"The most important thing about Nichole is what she has done for the girls' athletic program at Camarillo," said Willard, who also coaches Victoria in softball. "She has made all the girls more competitive because her success has created a more positive environment.
"She always has been the best player on the team, but she doesn't flaunt it."
But this basketball season probably will be her last, though not by choice. Victoria, who also was selected first team all-Southern Section in softball, has been asked to concentrate on her best sport. She has received scholarship offers to play shortstop for perennial power UCLA or Nevada-Las Vegas.
"I wish I can play both sports, but it doesn't work that way in college," Victoria said. "I'll still shoot around."
A look at the top teams in Ventura County:
* Buena--The Bulldogs entered last season with one senior and four sophomores, and Coach Joe Vaughan was predicting the worst. It turned out Vaughan is a better coach than oddsmaker; Buena finished 22-4 overall and 14-0 in the Channel League, of which it was the champion. The Bulldogs reached the semifinals of the Southern Section 5-A playoffs before losing to eventual champion Hart.
This season, California Basketball magazine has selected the Bulldogs as the fourth-best team in the state, and Vaughan isn't ashamed to admit he has a good squad.
Senior center Nicole Ellis (5-11 1/2), recovered from major knee surgery that cost her a season, scored 21 points in the season opener.
Junior Mia Palkie, a 5-8 forward who can touch the rim, averaged 9.8 points a game and earned second-team all-league honors.
Another returning starter is junior Jennifer Wells (5-10), who will move from center to forward to make room for Ellis. Junior point guard Lianne Ishikawa (5-3) returns after missing 15 games because of reconstructive surgery on her ankle.
Seniors Jennifer Goodwin (5-8) and Sherry Hodges will battle for the other guard spot.
"We have the capabilities of being a pretty good team," said Vaughan, who traditionally assesses his talent modestly. "We're not super-big, so we really need to work on our rebounding."
* Westlake--Seven players, including four starters, return from last year's team, which came within a win of reaching the 4-AA semifinals.
Dani O'Byrne (a 5-foot-8 junior swingman) averaged 13.4 points a game and was selected second-team All-Southern Section. Her supporting cast includes senior forward Melissa Gische (5-8) and junior Tracy Thorp (5-7). Both were second-team All-Marmonte League selections.
Center Lauren Goldstine (5-11) started last season as a freshman and averaged 9.7 rebounds a game. She will be backed by senior Amanda Schwann (5-11), another varsity letterman.
* Channel Islands--Four players have transferred, but Coach Ryle Lynch-Cole said his team won't feel the effects.
"It means that someone else gets a chance to play," Cole said. "I rarely say this, but I think we'll win the Marmonte League this season."
With 6-foot junior center Sal Tauau in his lineup, it's easy for Cole to sound confident. The husky Tauau (18 points and nine rebounds) is hard to stop inside the key. Sophomore point guard Blanca Rodriguez (5-2) is another returning starter.
Last year's reserves--senior forwards Danielle Brooks (5-7) and Jeannette Sisson (5-11) and guard Mercedes Garre (5-4)--round out the starting lineup.
* Ventura--Only three players return from last year's third-place Channel League team, but Coach Glenn Gray has enough young talent to fill the holes.
First-team all-league selection Cori Herman is the only returning starter. Herman, a 5-7 junior swingman, has an excellent shooting range and should improve on her 12.5-points-a-game average.
Andrea Williams (5-7 forward), the younger sister of Angela, becomes a starter at forward, and Tammy Ward (5-6) will be the point guard.
The newcomers are Denise Rae (5-9) and Wendy Ward (5-7), the top scorers from a junior varsity team that finished as co-champ with Buena.
"Aside from Buena, I think we compare with any team in the league," Gray said. "We'll suffer our lumps, but we'll be playing at a new level by the time we get into league."
* Simi Valley--Coach Dave Murphy admits his team might struggle to finish third in the Marmonte League, but that hasn't stopped the Pioneers from excelling in the playoffs.
Simi Valley (16-12, 5-7) finished fifth in league, but reached the 5-AA quarterfinals. Second-team all-league selection Josie Kasanke (10 points, seven rebounds) and Tammy Pacheco (5-8) are returning starters.
But the best player may be 5-10 guard Lori Church, who served on the junior varsity waiting for Shannon Solway to graduate. Church, who finished third in the 1,600 meters at the Southern Section 4-A track championships, is a tireless worker and will be the key to the Pioneers' full-court press.
* Santa Clara--Frontier League opponents will be taking their best shot at Santa Clara (26-2, 10-0) this season because the Saints have only one starter returning from last year's Southern Section 2-A championship team.
Gone are standouts Tami Adkins and Kerry Wagoner. Taking their places will be starting guard Saundra Cobos and seniors Rose Marie Lara and Carrie Spencer.
The Saints' streak of 73 consecutive wins and nine titles in the Frontier League could be in jeopardy.