After 18 years as a coach, Carol Strausburg knows plenty about growth and maturity.
She knows what it's like to go through the ups and downs of a long season. And what it's like to get your hopes up--only to have them dashed at the end.
Last year, there were a lot of dashed hopes.
This year, there weren't.
Fountain Valley, Strausburg's team, did what many thought might be impossible this season, winning nine of 10 games in the Sunset League. Only a loss to Esperanza in the final game of the season prevented a sweep of one of the Southern Section's toughest girls' basketball leagues.
How tough was it? The five (of six) Sunset League teams that made the playoffs won their first eight games combined, and finished with an 11-5 record; four teams reached the division semifinals.
And Fountain Valley was the best of them all when matched head-to-head.
Sure, Strausburg credits her assistants--Michelle Kravick, Dawn Lawler, Kami Bigler and Amy Brand. And she credits her players, such as Erin Avila, Jennifer Ludwicki and Nicole Strange.
But Strausburg deserves some of the credit too. She did, after all, win her 300th game this season and guide her team to a No. 4 ranking in Orange County. Many of her peers thought she should be coach of the year, and The Times Orange County agrees.
Her victory over Los Alamitos on Jan. 17 gave her No. 300, and by the time the Barons had bowed out of the playoffs in the Southern Section Division I-A semifinals--the second time the Barons had gone that far--Strausburg's career record had grown to 307-164.
One of the best things about the 300th victory was the renewal of old acquaintances. Strausburg said many former players acknowledged her contribution to their lives 15 years later, and that was as valuable as the gold "300" necklace given her that night.
The Barons were 22-7 this year, and the list of teams that beat them reads like a Who's Who of girls' basketball in the state. In addition to Esperanza, their only losses were to Mater Dei (twice), Woodbridge and Atherton Sacred Heart, all of which played in the State finals Saturday; Clovis West, which lost to Mater Dei in the Southern California Regional final; and Long Beach Poly, which won the Southern Section Division I-AA title.
This season was in stark contrast to last year's, when the Barons were 12-4, but did a free-fall over the final 11 games, finishing 17-10. But the same players were back--along with the same coach.
"I had some slight concerns it could happen again," Strausburg said. "But the people who played last year and started were more mature this year, and (senior) Erin Avila took on a larger leadership role, and I think that stability helped keep us from having that peak and then bombs away.
"What they couldn't do (last year) was recover from the setbacks that suddenly happened and it was like, 'We have no chance to win the Sunset League and they collapsed.' This year, the losses were just that--they were setbacks, and they took each loss a game at a time."
And they bounced back time and again, providing the even-tempered Strausburg with one of her most memorable years in a long career of teaching.
"It's special because of the 300th win, and because I saw a lot of growth take place within the kids maturity-wise and skill-wise," Strausburg said. "Like any group of 12 teen-agers, you're always going to have some internal problems, and that happened, but the players took care of it themselves. They managed to get past the little things that can sometimes get in a team's way, and looked forward to what they wanted to accomplish as a team, which was to win.
"They let the petty stuff go and just played basketball."
Which, truth be told, shows a lot of maturity.