It was a wildly successful and historic 2011-12 girls' basketball season for the four city teams.
Not only did Burroughs High, Burbank, Providence and Bellarmine-Jefferson all qualify for the CIF Southern Section playoffs, but the Pioneers and Guards also captured league championships. In addition, Providence, Bell-Jeff and Burbank all advanced to the playoff semifinals in their respective divisions.
With their share of returning players, the Bulldogs, Pioneers and Indians are looking to add to that success from last season. For Bell-Jeff, it is getting acclimated to a new coach and the team doesn't have much in the way of returners.
Here is a closer look at how the teams are shaping up.
Under coach Andrew Bencze, the Pioneers (27-6, 10-0 in league) rolled to an undisputed Liberty League championship, the third in a row for the program.
In the postseason, the No. 3 Pioneers went on to the Division V-AA semifinals for the first time in program history, losing to No. 1 Villanova Prep, 48-35. Providence received an invitation to state play and defeated Rock Academy, 68-35, and Orangewood Academy, 44-34, to advance to the regional semifinals. In the game, Providence saw its season come to an end with a 64-28 loss to Mission Prep.
Helping lead the historic run were Bea Benedicto and Katia Dabbaghian. The pair earned All-CIF Southern Section accolades in Division V-AA, as Benedicto and Dabbaghian were second-team picks.
Benedicto was also awarded by being named the Liberty League co-Player of the Year, averaging 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds a contest. Dabbaghian averaged 7.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.6 steals and three assists.
Luckily for the Pioneers, Benedicto, a forward, is back for her senior season and Dabbaghian, a guard, is just a sophomore.
"We return six of our top seven players," said Bencze, who lost All-CIF player Catherine Saint to graduation. "Any time you have that consistency from one year to the next it just makes it so much easier to coach. On top of that we have some really good editions, so we're excited about the season. This is the deepest team that I've ever had."
Bencze added that with the amount of returning players from a team that made a deep postseason run last season, the experience the players received a year ago is invaluable.
"That was without a doubt a great experience for them last year," he said. "You have to go through things to become a good player and you have to have those kinds of experiences. Last year, we got that experience of going deep in the playoffs and playing in those big games. Now it's all so real to them.
"We talk about winning a CIF championship this year and they know what it takes because they've been real close and they're really hungry."
Also returning to bolster the Providence lineup is sophomore Amanda Reyes and seniors Estelle Glorioso, Janel Adraneda and Nicole Mungues.
Adding to the mix is newcomers are Fabi Jimenez, a freshman, sophomore Deanna Nazarian, a transfer from Ribet Academy, and junior Kristie Kawamoto, a transfer from Glendale Adventist Academy. While Nazarian has been cleared to play right away, Kawamoto must sit out until Dec. 31 under the new CIF transfer restrictions.
With the talent the Pioneers possess this season, Bencze said winning a fourth consecutive Liberty League championship is definitely a goal.
"We have a tough preseason schedule, so we're hoping that will get us ready for league," Bencze said. "I think we should be the favorite in league, but Buckley has a very good player and they should be good."
The Bulldogs made history last season by advancing to the CIF Southern Section Division I-A semifinals for the first time. The squad also notched a first by qualifying for the state playoffs.
In the postseason, the Bulldogs — coached by Bruce Breeden — defeated Fountain Valley, 60-41, Upland, 62-40, and Temecula Valley, 58-49, to advance to the semifinals. In the final four, Burbank fell to a talented Summit squad, 76-49. In the state tournament, the Bulldogs ran into a juggernaut in Mater Dei and lost, 77-35.
Burbank (19-14, 10-4 in league for second place) was paced by senior Damarie Gonzalez. Gonzalez earned All-CIF Southern Section, All-Area and All-Pacific League first-team honors. Along with scoring 12.2 points a game, she also averaged 4.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.4 steals.
Despite losing Gonzalez and another key contributor, Sylvia Granado, Breeden said his team has enough talent to enjoy another fine season.
"The thing with us right now is that we have some injuries that we are trying to get over," Breeden said. "But overall I'm happy with the team that we're going to have. If we can get healthy and stay healthy, I think we should be a real good team.
"We are going to go 10 deep this year, as far as players getting a lot of playing time. We have a good number of players who will see time on the floor."
A key returner for the Bulldogs is senior Jamie Gonzalez, who Breeden is hoping will step up and take up some of the scoring that was lost when her sister, Damarie, graduated. Also returning are senior starters Aja Locke, Courtney Seidler and Lysette Perez, along with junior Ashley Linda.
"These players know what it was like to be successful last season," said Breeden, who will carry nine seniors. "They will be the ones who we will be looking to primarily to continue that success. A lot of girls got good playoff experience last year when we went pretty far, and that's definitely going to help us."
New to the Burbank team this season is sophomore Abby Troy, a transfer from L.A. Baptist, and junior Sharis Ghazeri.
In the race for the Pacific League title, Breeden said he expects a tough going.
"I really believe, if this league ends up like I think, first place is definitely within reach for us, and I think you might be able to finish first with three losses," he said. "I tell the girls with our talent, we could be challenging for a league title."
Bell-Jeff (24-6, 8-0) enters the season with a new coach, Stan Delus, who took over for Jaclyn Johnson, who stepped down after leading the Guards for three seasons.
Delus comes to Bell-Jeff after coaching the Canyon Country Canyon girls' team for five years. In 2009, Delus stepped down after the Cowboys had to forfeit 11 games because of CIF rules violations.
Last season, Bell-Jeff captured its fifth straight Santa Cruz League title. In the postseason, the No. 6 Guards advanced to the Division IV-AA semifinals, where they fell to No. 7 Gardena Serra, 71-54. The team also won a game in the Division IV state playoffs against Los Angeles Baptist, 70-60, before falling to St. Bernard, 65-51.
It was the Guards' fifth straight appearance in the division semifinals, something no other team in city history has been able to accomplish.
Bell-Jeff was paced by a pair of four-year standouts: Rishonda Napier and Jasmine Smith. Napier, a McDonald's All-American candidate, was named to the All-CIF Division IV-AA first-team for the third time. In addition, Napier was named the Santa Cruz League player of the year and made her fourth All-Area team. Napier averaged 21.7 points a game to go along with nearly three assists and three steals. Smith, who earned first-team all-league and All-Area accolades, averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds a game.
With the departure of Napier and Smith, and the decision of some players not to return to the team this season, it leaves the Guards with limited experience. The program is also suffering from low numbers this season.
"It's been up and down since I took over and there have been some rough stretches at times," Delus said. "We don't have a lot of experience, with four returning for us. We really have low numbers this year and we won't even be having a JV program because of that.
"But these girls are really working hard and they are giving their best, especially the two seniors."
Those two returning seniors are 6-foot-2 center Mariah Bankhead and guard Tiffany Kho. The other two returners are junior Karina Moreno and sophomore MacKenzie Dowling.
"The girls know with our numbers that they are going to have to step up and contribute," Delus said. "It's a real challenging situation, but it's something I know they can accomplish."
Delus is hoping the Guards can benefit from newcomer Anastasia Tsybaeva, who is 6-5.
"Having two girls who are 6-2 and 6-5 in the middle for us is going to a big benefit," Delus said.
The coach said the team's biggest competition standing in the Guards' way of winning a sixth consecutive league championship is St. Anthony, which has much of its team returning from last season's second-place league squad.
A relatively young Indians (12-16, 7-7) team experienced its share of struggles last season. After winning the league championship in 2011 and advancing to the CIF Southern Section Division I-A quarterfinals, Burroughs tied for fourth a year ago and barely qualified for the postseason.
In the playoffs, the Indians had a quick exit, suffering a 70-51 loss on the road to Paloma Valley in a first-round game.
The good news this season is that Burroughs has the majority of players returning from last year. In addition, coach Vicky Oganyan's squad received valuable experience playing an extensive schedule last summer.
"We only lost four seniors to graduation and just one of them was really a key player for us last year," Oganyan said. "We have a lot of players back and you can totally tell the difference from last year. In the spring they looked better and in the summer they looked better as well. But in the fall, this team is looking a lot better.
"We have 14 players on the roster right now and I expect about nine or 10 of them to get a good amount of playing time. I have some different options with that amount of good players."
Returning to anchor the team is senior center Aysia Shellmire (6-1). Shellmire, earned all-league and All-Area accolades last season after averaging 15.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 1.6 steals a game.
Oganyan said Shellmire's key to her success will be her ability to be consistent throughout the season.
"When she wants to, she is the best player on our team," Oganyan said. "She has the experience and she has the talent. She looks good when she tries as hard as she can. With her in there she can definitely be a big factor for us."
Other key returners are sophomores Davina Del Castillo and Delaney Nicol, juniors Sidney Ortega, Jakarra Waddell and Alondra Ramirez and senior Bailey Trotta.
The Indians have a fine group of newcomers that Oganyan said could get a chance to shine. Those players are freshmen Brooke Radcliff, Kaitlin Okimoto, Jordan Meltzer and Abby Ibarra.
"In league, I have seen Arcadia and I've seen Burbank and they are both very good," Oganyan said. "I haven't seen Muir or Pasadena, but they should also be tough. I think the league is going to be a pretty competitive league."