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PREP BASKETBALL STATE PLAYOFFS : Lady Cats Are Making History in County : Brea-Olinda: Team, which plays for State Division III girls’ title Saturday, is considered among Southern Section’s all-time best.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just how good is the Brea-Olinda High School girls’ basketball team? --The Lady Cats are the first Orange County girls’ basketball team to win a state championship, which they did last season. They have a chance to make it back-to-back titles with a victory in State Division III title game against Auburn Placer Saturday morning at the Oakland Coliseum.

--They are 33-0 and working on a 55-game winning streak, second in Southern Section history to the 84-game streak set by Riverside Poly teams from 1978-82, led by Cheryl Miller. Brea-Olinda last lost to Cony, Me., at the Christ the King Tournament in New York in December 1988.

--They earned a No. 4 ranking in USA Today after toppling then-top-ranked Morningside and its all-American, Lisa Leslie, and then-sixth-ranked Los Angeles Washington on the way to the championship of the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions in December.

On March 8, as the team warmed up for its game against Lemoore in the Southern California Regional Division III semifinal, Lady Cat fans not only were buying tickets at the gym for the regional championship game at the Sports Arena, but several already had made plane and hotel reservations for the state tournament in Oakland.

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Cockiness on the part of the fans? Maybe. More likely it is testimony to the strength of this year’s Lady Cat team. The team has carved out a place in Orange County history, and it is making its mark on Southern Section history as well.

They have emerged, along with Dave White’s 1987 Edison team, as one of the best to come out of Orange County. The Edison team won the Southern Section 4-A title and finished 31-2 after a loss in the Southern California regional final. It featured three players who won college scholarships: 4-A player of the year Kristy Smith (Utah), Michelle Hennessey (Utah) and Denise Ogburn (Cal Poly Pomona).

“It would be a heck of a game,” White said, speculating about a 1990 Brea-1987 Edison matchup. “It would be up-tempo because both teams like to press and run. We both feel each of our two guards were probably the two best guard tandems that have come through in a long time, so it would be a great matchup.”

Brea Coach Mark Trakh agrees that either team could win. “My heart says Brea-Olinda first, my mind says it would be a really tough game,” Trakh said.

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No matter how good this season’s Lady Cats are, most coaches say they couldn’t have handled Riverside Poly during the Cheryl Miller years, specifically the 1981 team in her junior year, considered the best girls’ basketball team in Southern Section history. And a strong case could be made for Miller’s 1982 team that won the state Division I title.

“I think they (Brea) have a great team,” said Len Locher, who runs a West Coast scouting service and the Tournament of Champions, a showcase for some of the best teams on the West Coast. “It is the best team probably to ever come out of Orange County. They would probably be in the top six, maybe five in Southern Section history.

“They wouldn’t have beaten the Riverside Poly team of 1982. I don’t think we’ll ever see another team like that one at any level. Not only did they have the best player in probably the game’s history at the high school level, but five Division I athletes with her. They could have played with a lot of college teams during that period.”

Riverside Poly’s starting lineup included Miller, who went on to become a four-time all-American at USC and an Olympian, and Meg Gallagher, who played at Cal State Fullerton.

Locher ranks four other teams ahead of this year’s Brea-Olinda team: 1988 Morningside, 1987 Santa Barbara, 1984 Buena and 1979 Long Beach Poly.

The problem is the Lady Cats don’t have the dominating center. Sophomore center Jinelle Williams averages 15 points and nine rebounds a game, but she is only 5-foot-9. Aimee McDaniel (5-6) runs the point. Tammy Blackburn (5-8) is the shooting guard, and Jody Anton (5-11) and Allison Bickel (6-0) are the forwards.

The teams Brea has beaten this season have had weaknesses either in the post or with their supporting casts.

Against Palos Verdes, in the Southern California Division III regional finals, the Lady Cats struggled in the first half with 6-2 Monique Moorehouse, who is not a dominating center. Brea-Olinda eventually won, 47-46.

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“They don’t match up well with a lot of teams,” Locher said. “These teams ahead of them had big kids with no weaknesses to exploit. The centers were all strong and had strong supporting casts.

“Brea just doesn’t have the monster on the front line and that is really what the difference is,” Locher said. “Not to take anything away from Williams and Bickel and Anton--they are very solid players--but they don’t have that big 6-2 kid who can really do it.” What Brea-Olinda does have is an incredible team fidelity and an almost merciless ability to exploit a team’s weaknesses while making few mistakes itself.

“They take advantage of your weaknesses,” Morningside Coach Frank Scott said. When Brea-Olinda knocked his team from the No. 1 spot in the nation this season, two of Morningside’s starters were injured. Scott would like another shot at Brea-Olinda, but he has his hands full in the state Division I championship.

The other thing Brea-Olinda has is the state Division III player of the year--McDaniel.

“The heart and soul of the team is McDaniel,” Scott said. “Without her, I don’t know how far they would have gone. It would be like us losing Lisa (Leslie). She is not the caliber of player Lisa is, but I think she is their best player.”

It was McDaniel who made a promise to Coach Trakh that things would get better. That was two years ago, after Brea-Olinda experienced one of its biggest upset losses, falling to Los Altos, 46-41, in the Southern Section quarterfinals.

Brea-Olinda had what many considered its best team, a team that had a good chance to compete for the state Division II title two years ago. Blackburn, McDaniel and Bickel were sophomores, and Kristen Blair and Susan Tousey were the other starters. Tousey was the dominating center. “She was a 6-3 senior who could touch the rim,” Trakh said. “The kid had super talent. She had a hook shot you couldn’t believe. She could run, shoot. There was nothing she couldn’t do.” But the Lady Cats didn’t meet expectations.

It was the kind of trouble that comes to many successful teams. A little envy, here and a little jealousy there may have resulted in the upset loss.

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Trakh blames himself for not educating the players to accept their roles and put the team ahead of individual goals.

“I was so disappointed with the immaturity of the kids, I said I’m done,” Trakh said.

But it was McDaniel, says Trakh, who made a commitment after that game that changed Trakh’s mind. “It was one of the most motivating moments in my life when this kid came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. I screwed up for you and if you stay, I’m going to work for you.’ That was the turning point,” Trakh said.

“She still gets upset with me and everything, but the bottom line was she was really loyal when it counted. She just said this won’t happen again. And in two years, it hasn’t.”


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