La Cañada High's Chen pushed her team to new heights

Regardless of whether the La Cañada High girls’ basketball team played at home or on the road this past season, the Spartans’ jerseys had a certain uniformity of cardinal, gold and white.

While Spartans senior guard Courtney Chen wore the same colors as her teammates, the 5-foot-4 sparkplug also accessorized.

Chen could been seen throughout the year with purple bruises, blackened knees and reddened elbows earned by a give-all, play-hard mentality that helped lead her squad to several wins and Chen to individual awards accompanied by bumps, lacerations and even a concussion.

“I liked to model my game, especially my defense after [Ohio State senior guard] Aaron Craft,” said Chen in reference to the recently named National Assn. of Basketball Coaches Defensive Player of the Year. “I’m not saying I’m as good as him, but he plays the way you’re supposed to play.

“You have to hustle to be a good defender and you have to get in your opponent’s face. Don’t be dirty, but be aggressive and be annoying. That’s what I tried to be.”

While no high school award for “most annoying player” exists, Chen certainly racked up her own honors in being named the Rio Hondo League co-Most Valuable Player along with South Pasadena’s Lexie Scholtz, earning a spot on the CIF Southern Section Division III-A first team and finishing as her school’s No. 2 scorer all-time with 1,383 points.

Now Chen can add one more accolade, as she’s been selected the 2014 All-Area Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year by the sportswriters of the La Cañada Valley Sun, Burbank Leader and Glendale News-Press.

The award is the second in a row for Chen, the area’s first two-time winner since Bellarmine-Jefferson’s Shelley Gupilan took the title in 2008 and 2009.

“Courtney is a special player,” said Spartans Coach Tamar Hill, who recently stepped down after a 14-year run. “She wants to win as bad as anyone on the court. She’s a beast on the defensive end and is hard to keep up with.

“But more than that, she’s a smart player who knows how to find her teammates and get them involved. She’s a team player.”

Chen averaged a team-leading 12.5 points per game, while also contributing four rebounds, four assists and 3.1 steals per contest for a Spartans squad that finished 24-7, won a Rio Hondo League championship, advanced to the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division III-A playoffs and won a CIF State Division III playoff game before falling in the second round.

Heading into the season, University of Redlands-bound Chen drew comparisons to two players – her older sister, Tia Chen, and Spartans all-time scorer Melissa Lord, whose 1, 625 points are the gold standard at La Cañada.

Chen had scored 1, 045 points through three seasons heading into her senior year, but didn’t particularly enjoy comparisons to Lord.

“I didn’t measure myself up against the scoring record because then my goal would have been to beat [Lord],” she said. “I just didn’t think that was the right mindset for a team sport. Who cares if I score 30 points in one game, but we lose? That just didn’t make too much sense to me.”

All comparisons were put on hold for Chen when the senior suffered a concussion during a practice game days before the start of the regular season that forced her to miss the first four games of the year.

“That might have been the only injury I’ve ever had that made me a little cautious,” Chen said. “You hear stories about football players having mental problems later in life and you don’t really know what to think.

“I missed the first two weeks of the preseason and I couldn’t even practice because my brain needed to rest. If anything, that sitting and waiting made me want to come back stronger.”

Chen returned on Dec. 11 and scored eight points in limited action in a Spartans’ 46-45 victory over El Segundo.

“I wasn’t really comfortable in that game,” Chen said. “My shot was off, my passing was off, it seemed like I was off.”

Chen’s tenacity, however, wasn’t in question as she twice dove on the floor for loose balls in scrapping up the back of her elbow.

“I don’t think you could ever question Courtney’s heart or work ethic,” Spartans teammate Keilee Bessho said. “Courtney was a great teammate, a leader by example and a hard-worker. She really pushed us to be a better team.”

The eight-point effort was an aberration, as Chen netted 15 points five days later in a Spartans’ 45-34 victory over El Monte in the first of seven straight games of double-digit scoring.

One of the more interesting games during Chen’s scoring spree came on Dec. 26 versus crosstown rival Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in a match-up that also featured Tologs sophomore scorer Jenna Tran.

While Tran topped Chen in scoring, 21-13, La Cañada won the contest, 61-44, behind a balanced attack.

Chen finished with five rebounds and six assists and paced an offense that boasted five players with eight or more points.

“My responsibility wasn’t just scoring, but knowing our team’s personnel, which is what a point guard should do,” Chen said. “I have to know where to throw [Sarah] Borland the ball and where to position myself on court with Keilee and where to feed Amber [Graves] and Alyssa Miller.

“You have to know everyone’s preferences and you have to get them involved.”

A run to the Division III-A semifinals and a victory in the Division III state playoffs in the program’s first-ever trip, perhaps the team’s two largest accomplishments this season, nearly didn’t happen without a major effort from Chen early in the postseason.

Visiting San Luis Obispo nearly ran La Cañada out of its own gym, taking a 13-point halftime lead in the second round of the Division III-A playoffs on Feb. 23.

Chen struggled offensively that night in shooting five for 18 for 12 points. She also came down hard on her side midway through the second quarter and missed a few minutes due to the injury.

“It was my ribs,” Chen said. “I landed on my ribs and I had trouble breathing. I just sat on the bench until I could catch my breathe and then I went out there and did what I could.”

Chen delivered a pivotal assist to Miller, who drained a straightaway go-ahead three-pointer that put the Spartans up 39-38 with 4:22 left.

Miller had been 0 for five up until that point.

“Courtney was going to live and die with her teammates that night,” Hill said. “Some guards would have gone somewhere else with that pass. She knew exactly where to go.”

Chen also came up with two of her nine steals over the last two minutes in helping her team secure a 44-42 victory.

A big reason for La Cañada’s success that night was the team’s dogged defense, which followed Chen’s lead and forced 21 second-half turnovers.

“I’ve had the pleasure and annoyance of watching Courtney play the last few years and she does so much for her team,” said San Marino Coach Kenny Fisher, who formerly coached at Flintridge Prep. “What she does best is inspire.

“Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great scorer, slasher, passer, defender, you name it. But she makes players around her better and that’s most dangerous.”


Follow Andrew J. Campa on Twitter: @campadresports.

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