Back on Top : Brea Olinda Ready to Reclaim Its Status as the Premier Program

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Timing is everything.

When Jeff Sink arrived at Brea Olinda from Alaska two seasons ago, he inherited a dynasty, a girls' basketball program that had won four consecutive state titles and had just been named national champion by USA Today.

The Ladycats haven't been on top since--not even in the county rankings, where Woodbridge became queen of girls' basketball.

That changes today.

Sure, Brea won two Southern Section titles in the interim, but section titles are fairly common on Wildcat Way. The Ladycats have won eight straight. And they haven't gone three years without a state title since 1988. There have been five since then, including four in a row leading up to 1994's state championship banner. It seems the only standard Brea's program can measure itself by is statewide. Or nationally.

And that's where the timing comes in. Brea has four starters back from last year's team, which finished a game short--for the second consecutive year--of reaching the state final.

And it doesn't stop there.

Joining Rochelle Anthony, Marissa Bradley, Jennifer Saari and Stephanie Wettlin are:

* A 6-foot-2 1/2 freshman with skill, Chelsea Trotter.

* A sophomore who started almost one-third of the team's games, Lindsey Davidson.

* A reserve who was among the leading shooters in the county, Erin Kelly (47.3%).

* A reserve defensive specialist whose 12 points, six rebounds, six steals and three assists sparked a come-from-behind victory in a state playoff game, Catherine Solorio.

It's easy to see why Sink's shoes would be pretty comfortable on any pair of feet. He knew the Ladycats would be good, but he didn't think they would be this good.

Ranked No. 1 by The Times Orange County Edition, they open the season at No. 7 in Street & Smith's national rankings and No. 8 in USA Today. Tournaments were already scheduled to give the Ladycats national exposure and every opportunity to rise even higher. All they have to do is win.

Timing is everything.

Less than 90 seconds into the Green and Gold game, the intrasquad scrimmage played before boosters, Trotter went down, maybe for the season, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Another reserve, sophomore Cory Wink, already had strained her knee 60 minutes into the first day of practice and will miss the first month.

And so, eight days before the Ladycats play their first game, Sink cuts loose with the sarcasm: "We've had a great first week."

This is Brea Olinda basketball, where winning is inherent, as is the pressure.

But if the players thought they had something to prove in the past, escaping the shadow of the Nicole Erickson era (130-5, four state titles, No. 1 national ranking), they are feeling right at home now, comfortable atop the Orange County heap.

They are pushing themselves harder than ever. "Instead of wanting to live up to the tradition," Anthony says, "we want to do it for ourselves."

*

Saari and Bradley were freshmen during Brea's heralded 1993-94 season, the one that featured seven seniors, including point guard Erickson, center Colleen Hudson and forward Sarah Beckley. Saari and Bradley, in uniform for the playoffs, got a taste of the national spotlight.

They were in the interview room at the Oakland Coliseum Arena after the Ladycats had beaten San Jose Archbishop Mitty and the mother of three-point specialist Lee Moulin broke the news, "Pickerington lost." Pickerington (Ohio), at that time, was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today, and unbeaten Brea was No. 2. Emotions ran high as the Ladycats reached the program's zenith.

Eight months later, Brea was ranked No. 2 in Orange County.

"It was different," said Bradley, who had grown up in the Polcat feeder program. "It was the first time I was looking up instead of on top looking down. But it made us work harder and reach our goals and not take things for granted. We had to prove ourselves. It was like starting over."

And Brea did just that. With a new coach, the Ladycats went 30-3 and won their seventh straight section title. But they were beaten by state champion Woodbridge in the final of the Southern California Regionals. For the first time in four years, there was no state championship. For the first time in seven years, there was not even a state championship appearance.

Eight months later, Brea was ranked No. 5 in Orange County behind Woodbridge, Mater Dei, Fountain Valley and Edison.

"Girls' basketball was different when Brea wasn't on top, like there was a chance for the rest of us," said Laguna Hills Coach Lynn Taylor, whose team is ranked second in Orange County this season.

Despite the chance everyone else might have had, Brea won its eighth consecutive section title, but eventually lost to state champion Woodbridge in the regional final. A game short once more.

"The last two years, there was a ton of talent," San Clemente Coach Mary Mulligan said. "Mater Dei, Woodbridge and Fountain Valley had tremendous talent. Now, it's back to the status quo."

The status quo: Brea, back on top, state title in sight.

Brea players don't celebrate section titles the way others do. Last year, there was no jumping up and down, no giddiness. Smiles, yes. Exhilaration, no.

"I thought it was great, but the difference between seven and eight wasn't that much," Bradley said. "The [section] title isn't our main goal. It's a means to an end. And because of that, we don't take time to look at our accomplishment and enjoy it the way some teams do. It's just another day's work."

Like winning a league title. Brea has won a section-record 14 in a row. Their 91 consecutive league victories is six short of the section record, which could fall Feb. 4 against Western.

"Sometimes it's kind of sad," Bradley said. "How great is it when you can't enjoy it? Everyone gets so hyped up for state, the section title is just a little hurdle in the way. It's like a pregame tuneup."

*

Brea scheduled plenty of hurdles this season. The Ladycats might be better than they were the last two seasons, but they could lose as many games as they have during that entire span (seven).

Sink was told by USA Today that his schedule is probably among the nation's five toughest.

The Ladycats are in three tournaments with seven other California section champions, five in the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions (including Woodbridge). In the Pickerington Lady Tiger Classic, there are four other teams ranked in the top 25 by USA Today. On top of that, Brea plays defending state Division I champion Mater Dei (ranked 14th by USA Today) on Jan. 18, and Southern Section Division I champion Ventura Buena (ranked ninth in the West by USA Today) on Feb. 1.

Between the Santa Barbara and Pickerington tournaments, the Ladycats have three days off--Dec. 24, 25 and a travel day on the 26th.

"I think we will drop some of these games, but I think we'll win some of these games, also," Sink said. "There are two tacks you can take. You can protect yourself and play for the end game and accumulate a lot of wins along the way, or you try to showcase your talent, play the best teams available, and continue to focus on the ultimate end game--the state championship. And that's the tack we've taken."

There is plenty to showcase. Wettlin (9.6 points), Anthony (11.8), Saari (13.3) and Bradley (14.2) all shot better than 43.9% from the field last season, Wettlin being highest (50.9%) and Bradley lowest.

Davidson averaged seven points and four assists, and was thrust into a pivotal starting role after Saari injured her knee in an early playoff game. Kelly, a junior, averaged seven points and five steals.

Saari was a Times Orange County first-team player last year, Bradley was a second-team selection. The only thing lacking this year is someone taller than Wettlin at 5-11. And, for 90 seconds in the Green and Gold game, the Ladycats had that, too.

No big deal. Bradley says: "With [Trotter], we're good. Without her, we're good."

But not everyone agrees. Brea still might be good, but "with Trotter, they were awesome," said Mulligan, whose San Clemente team played Brea during the summer. "She was the difference--big, fearless, willing to take a chance. Her presence made everyone else better."

Timing is everything.

"All this hard work, I want it to amount to something more than a CIF [section] title," Bradley said. "Maybe even more than that. A national title, maybe."

Sink says there is no national agenda. A national schedule, yes, but not an effort to match the 1994 season. It was a two-year process getting into the Pickerington tournament, and that was part of the vision he had to prepare this group of seniors for a run at the state title. But the schedule and the opportunity isn't lost on the players.

"If we beat [a team like] Oregon City or a top-five team," Bradley said, "that's going to make a statement."

Sink draws an analogy.

"It's like winning the lottery--you have to buy your ticket to win," Sink said. "We bought our ticket. The odds are against us, but we're at least in the game. And that's the fun. Constant daily success is not as important this year as success down the stretch.

"One is the dream, the other is the pursuit."

*

Maybe it's a romantic notion after years of dominance, but Taylor admits that a sense of order has been restored by Brea's return to the top of the county rankings.

Brea has long been the example county teams tried to emulate, and Woodbridge and Mater Dei were the successful students who surpassed the teacher for two years.

Woodbridge finished last season ranked sixth by USA Today and Mater Dei was 10th. But Brea raised the bar.

The Ladycats and Mater Dei are two of the three California teams ranked nationally; the other, Division III state champion Grass Valley Bear River has five starters back and was beaten last year by Laguna Hills, which has four starters back.

"Maybe beating Brea wasn't the same the last couple of years, but certainly, they're back in the spotlight now--there's that aura," Taylor said. "If there's one program that can take [being a target], it's them."

Brea's four starters have been together since the seventh grade, when they dreamed of being Ladycats and visions of Jody Anton and the 1992 state championship danced in their heads.

"It's a lot to live up to," Anthony said. "This is the team everyone's been waiting for since Nicole [Erickson] graduated. Everyone has been waiting for us to go all the way. We have a lot of expectations to fill, everyone's counting on us, and we don't want to let anyone down."

Can they do it? Can they follow in the footsteps of past teams that won state titles to leave as their legacy on the gym wall?

Bradley says yes. "It's our turn," she said.

Timing is everything. With a season ahead of them, the Ladycats are back on top. All they have to do is end up there.

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