BURBANK — It was a banner year for three of the four area high school girls' basketball programs last season.
While three teams — Burroughs, Bellarmine-Jefferson and Providence highs — qualified for the CIF Southern Section playoffs, two — the Guards and Pioneers — captured league champions.
Burbank was the lone team that failed to make the postseason.
Continued success and improvement for the locals looks like a possibility this season, as all four squads return their share of key players.
There is one big change, however. Bell-Jeff Coach Bryan Camacho has moved on. After another coach took over and then subsequently stepped down, the school tabbed former Guards' standout and current athletic director Jaclyn Johnson to take over the program.
Camacho leaves big shoes to fill. In his eight years with the Guards' program, he accumulated a 183-50 record and had a .785 winning percentage. In addition, Bell-Jeff has won three straight Santa Cruz League titles and captured a state championship in 2009.
Here is a closer look at how the teams are coming together.
Last season, along with the league crown, the Guards (25-7) advanced to the CIF Southern Section Division IVA semifinals and won a game in the state playoffs.
Taking over the program has been a seamless transition, according to Johnson.
"This group is just awesome" said Johnson, who played at the University of Kansas, in the WNBA and in Europe. "I am fortunate to take over a group that is not only talented, but that is willing to learn. The girls have been kind of going with the flow."
Bell-Jeff did lose two key players, Margeaux Gupilan and Julia Tani, to graduation. Gupilan, an All-CIF selection and league player of the year, averaged 13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game. Tani was a first-team all-league pick, averaging 7.2 points and 3.3 steals a game.
However, despite the departures, Bell-Jeff still has its share of firepower, including a talented trio in senior guard Layana White, junior point guard Rishonda Napier and junior forward Jasmine Smith.
White, an All-CIF honoree who has committed to the University of Arizona, averaged 12.6 points and 4.2 steals a game and. Smith averaged 12.2 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks and Napier averaged 13.2 points and 3.3 steals.
Also returning are sophomore guards Tiffany Kho and Leslie Lopez-Wood, senior guard Janelle Gabb, junior forward Averie Guzman, junior guard Kiah Jones and junior forward Marilyn Flynn.
Newcomers Johnson expects to contribute are junior forward Johnese Miller and sophomore guard Clarissa Larios.
"I know we have the players to score, but my biggest concern will be our ability to play defense," Johnson said. "We just have to stay in our sets and make sure we play solid defense."
As far as the league is concerned, Johnson doesn't expect an easy trek to the Guards' fourth title.
"We should be pushed a few times in league," she said. "We are going to have to be ready."
A year ago, Providence (18-10) was able to win the Liberty League championship for the first time in three years.
Much of the Pioneers' offense was run through senior Christine Mallari, who graduated. The All-CIF and league player of the year averaged 10 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists a game.
"It's tough to replace the league [player of the year]," Providence Coach Andrew Bencze said. "But we have a very good group of players. Seven of our nine players from last year return, and nine of our 12 players are seniors. I have 12 players who all can play."
Bencze said he will rely on a trio of returning players who have a wealth of experience. Senior point guard Kim Quijano, senior guard Rita Khatchadourian — a returning all-league selection — and senior wing Ana Solis all begin their fourth years on varsity.
"We definitely have a team with experienced players," Bencze said. "This is a year we are hoping to not only do well in league, but we want to make a substantial run in the playoffs.
"We will play our usual up-tempo style, we'll push the ball up the court and play our brand of tight defense."
The Pioneers will have two solid players in the post in sophomores Bea Benedicto and Janel Adraneda. Others who Bencze expects to contribute are junior wing Catherine Saint, senior guards Clarice Glorioso and Christine Salero, sophomore post Janel Adraneda and senior forward Natalie Ficocelli.
In the battle for the Liberty League crown, Bencze expects his squad to be in the thick of things.
"It will probably come down to us and Holy Martyrs," Bencze said. "Holy Martyrs lost just one player from last year, so we are very similar in that respect."
The Indians (19-10) are coming off a season in which they placed third in the Pacific League.
Coach Vicky Oganyan has kept her team busy in the offseason. In the summer alone, the Indians played nearly 60 games.
"We have seven players who are returning," Oganyan said. "We played a lot during the summer, and I'm hoping that experience will help us this season. This is just an awesome group and they have worked very hard."
Burroughs has one of the most talented players in the area in senior Lisha Elsenbach. Last season, Elsenbach helped lead Burroughs to the playoffs and was a first-team all-league selection and a second-team All-Area pick, averaging 15.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.6 steals a game.
"We expect a lot from Lisha," Oganyan said. "She is going to be our scorer and our go-to player. We need her to not only score, but to get rebounds."
Oganyan said if Elsenbach averages 19 to 20 points a game she will break the Burroughs career scoring record.
Senior guards Chelsea Rhamdeow, Justice Shank and Shannon Kermah, along with sophomore center Aysia Shellmire, senior center Taylor Buliavac and junior guard Gabriela Piniera will all be expected to contribute.
Burroughs is also hoping to get back senior guard Michelle Zamudio, who tore a knee ligament three games into summer play.
Like years past, Oganyan said she expects Muir to once again be the team to beat in the Pacific League.
The Bulldogs (10-16) finished the 2009-10 campaign tied for fifth place in the Pacific League.
With his share of returners, Burbank Coach Bruce Breeden said he expects his squad to improve from last season.
"We have just about everybody back from last season," Breeden said. "This is a really tight team and they all get along so well. We think that we should have the talent to do well. I will be very disappointed if we don't make the playoffs this year."
The Bulldogs return a solid player in junior small forward Damarie Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who averaged 10.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game, is a legitimate outside shooting threat.
Also returning is senior point guard Evelyn Abrami.
"We are going to have to get more scoring out of Evelyn this season," Breeden said.
The coach said he is also going to rely on sophomore power forward Courtney Seidler, sophomore post Aja Locke, junior point guard Sylvia Granados, junior shooting guard Irene Pashapour and sophomore Lysette Perez, who can play a variety of positions, to help the team thrive.
Like Oganyan, Breeden said Muir is going to be tough to beat this season.
"Muir has a 6-foot-2 freshman coming in," he said. "But I'm expecting us to make the playoffs."