Even without star, Glendale women's team poised for gold

GLENDALE — The frustrations still remain, the agony lingers and the letdown is fresh in their minds.

Four years ago, the Glendale women's basketball team, representing the Homenetmen Ararat Chapter, lost in the championship game of the fourth Pan-Armenian Games in Yerevan, Armenia.

Four years later, two members of that team, Melia Basavand and Aileen Vartanian, are on a path to release their frustrations and prove themselves against the best that the Armenian community has to offer.

The returning duo will join a bevy of local athletes who will vie for gold when the fifth Pan-Armenian Games begin today in Yerevan.

The Glendale women's team includes 2010 Crescenta Valley High graduates Ani Ebrahamian and Melanie Samvelian, in addition to Glendale High's Anna Shahinian (class of 2009) and CV sophomore Ella Stepanian.

But Coach Menooa Aboolian's team doesn't include arguably the best player in the Homenetmen Glendale Ararat chapter.

Glendale will be without Christine Kepenekian, a Burbank High graduate and former member of the Ararat Women's Basketball team. Kepenekian tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during the annual Homenetmen Navasartian Games on July 2 and will miss the Pan-Armenian Games.

"It was really devastating," Kepenekian said. "We had been practicing and fundraising a lot. Four years ago, we didn't fundraise and practice as much. We were a closer team and more talented. I knew this time around was our best chance. It's pretty devastating."

Not only did Glendale lose its top player in Kepenekian — who played for Hatis Yerevan, the top women's professional basketball team in Armenia last year — but it also lost one of the best athletes in the tournament.

"She made everybody better," said Basavand, a 2007 Glendale High graduate who recently completed her career at the University of Albany. "Our offense revolved around her.

"But I don't want people to think that it's not possible to win without her."

Kepenekian said her teammates should win the championship.

"[My injury] doesn't kill their chances at all," said Kepenekian, who had knee surgery on July 14 and won't make the trip to Armenia. "I'm just one player. It would be a disappointment to not win the gold because we have so much talent on that team."

Aboolian and the rest of his athletes believe a return trip to the championship game is within reach.

"We expect to go to the finals," Aboolian said. "We expect to win. We wouldn't go into a tournament without expecting to win."

Glendale has advanced to the finals before. It knows winning the championship game will require a remarkable performance from a team that will rely on balanced scoring and its defensive efforts to make up for its height disadvantage.

"We're going to have a much more balanced attack," Aboolian said. "We're going to rely on more players to create. We're going to speed up the game more."

He'll turn to Basavand and Vartanian, a 2007 Hoover graduate, to provide the leadership and to prepare their teammates for the adjustments of international basketball.

"The rules of the game are different," Aboolian said. "It's a lot more physical over there. You have to beat the team and the atmosphere.

"The biggest adjustment is playing in a gym where the floors are not the same; it's a much more hostile environment. Having third-world conveniences while being used to first-round luxuries is a big difference, too."

Added Vartanian: "We will tell them the differences in the competition, but they won't really understand until the first game. We can help them, but there is only so much we can do."

Basavand said the biggest adjustment Glendale will have to make is becoming accustomed to the referees.

"We played 8-on-5 [in the finals in 2007]," said Basavand, mentioning that Kepenekian was riddled with foul trouble against Yerevan in the title game because of what she perceived to be three biased officials. "They weren't fair."

Glendale understands it can't control the referees, so it will try to control the pace of the game with the likes of Shahinian and Stepanian. Shahinian, who played at Pasadena City College, will give Glendale the speed it needs to run and Stepanian provides exuberance and strength off the bench.

Despite being a sophomore at CV, where she averaged 9.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game as a freshman, Stepanian said she's prepared to elevate her game against international competition.

"Basketball skills, I would say, I think I'm ready to play with the people who are going," Stepanian said. "I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm very happy. I want to show them I can play. I don't want to let my teammates down."

Her teammates include Flora Gabrielyan (Sun Valley, 2007), Arpine Amirkhanyan (Grant, 2007), Mariam Asaryan (Grant, 2007), Alin Jabourian (Armenian Sisters Academy, 2009) and Anasik Zohrabi (Burbank, 2008).

They're out to prove they can win without Kepenekian.

They're also out to replace the second-place banner that hangs from the Ararat gym from 2007.

Said Aboolian: "It reminds us every single day. I think there should be nothing but first-place banners."

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