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El Camino Real girls pulled off a basketball miracle 40 years ago

El Camino Real girls pulled off a basketball miracle 40 years ago
El Camino Real’s 1979 state championship team: Back row, Nancy Gray, Jenny Williams, Nancy Hallman, Kelly Stanton, Chris Sellin, coach Harvey Green; front row, Rowen Monroe, Karen Callison, Darleen Branigan, Lori Chandler, Karen Bressler, Clare Swan, Leslie Rehak. (Courtesy of Leslie Rehak)

Who could forget North Carolina State’s drive to the NCAA tournament championship in 1983?

After narrow victories throughout the playoffs, the Wolfpack edged heavily favored Houston for the college basketball title with a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles that prompted a celebrated dash around the court by coach Jim Valvano.

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Now, who can remember the El Camino Real High girls’ state championship 40 years ago?

Though perhaps even more improbable than North Carolina State’s title, that memorable season by the Woodland Hills school has become almost a footnote rather than a blaring headline.

North Carolina State’s 1983 season got immortalized by an ESPN documentary. El Camino Real couldn’t muster enough interest among its players this month to hold a reunion celebration.

Still, Rowen Monroe has launched a one-woman crusade to bring attention to what she calls El Camino Real’s “March Madness miracle.”

El Camino Real’s season culminated with an 80-60 victory over previously undefeated San Francisco Washington High on March 10, 1979, in the championship game. Of the eight teams competing in the state event, known as the Tournament of Champions, the Conquistadores were seeded last.

“Nobody gave us a chance and nobody expected us to win,” said Monroe, a longtime resident of Hawaii who works as a substitute teacher. “How could this happen — with a first-year girls’ basketball coach?

“We had a unique team with only three seniors, nine juniors and one sophomore. [Teammate] Karen Callison said a local newspaper reported that we looked like a bunch of models instead of basketball players.

“The chances of our winning state would be as if someone had been bowling six months and rolled a 300.”

Monroe was a reserve guard for that 1979 El Camino Real team and chronicled its triumphs as sports editor for the campus newspaper. She contacted this reporter and several of the players in hopes of creating interest in this team whose radiance shined so brightly during a 20-0 season.

El Camino Real represented the Los Angeles City Section in the state event. The Conquistadors claimed the City title in December 1978 with a 55-50 victory over L.A. Jefferson and future professional great Cynthia Cooper. But the City Section was out of synch with other California Interscholastic Federation sections’ basketball season so El Camino Real had to wait three months before engaging in the state event.

“Many of my teammates started competing in other winter and spring sports so winning the state seemed like a longshot after completing an undefeated season in 1978,” Monroe said. “We were all into other sports so this made it that much more of a miracle.”

The coach was Harvey Green, who was making his debut as the girls’ basketball coach after getting experience guiding the junior varsity boys’ baseball team.

Green, who died in 2007, pulled all the right levers in leading his team to four victories in the single-elimination state tournament, including a tight victory over top-seeded Berkeley in the opener at Chabot College in Hayward.

The next day, El Camino Real steamrolled the competition, posting three victories at Oakland Coliseum to bring home the title. Senior center Chris Sellin scored 26 points and junior guard Darleen Branigan had 24 to lead El Camino Real past Washington in the finals.

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The El Camino Real stars that season were Sellin, Branigan and junior guard Lori Chandler. Sellin earned a scholarship to play at California and Chandler got a scholarship to Hawaii. Other starters were junior forwards Nancy Gray and Leslie Rehak.

Branigan had recruited the 6-foot-2 Sellin from the track team and Sellin quickly blossomed from high jumper to All-American basketball player. “We never would have won it without Chris. Give credit to Darleen for recruiting Chris,” Monroe said.

So what made this team so good?

“We had team chemistry both on and off the court,” Monroe said. “We sang together, went to football games together and several players ate meals together off the court.

“Darleen, Lori and Nancy all played club [basketball] together. Everyone was so familiar with each other, they all clicked together. With Lori’s leadership and Darleen as the defensive power, it started even before high school. Also, Nancy Gray was a tenacious power forward, a key player and unsung hero. And Leslie Rehak and Karen Callison were all over the court with their hustle.”

Rehak, a three-year starter, agreed that chemistry was the key to the team’s success.

“I think fun always came first. We always enjoyed each other. It never came down to winning til we were at the state level. We really enjoyed each other’s company and had such support from our parents. Most of our parents came to every game. We just had a magical team that one year.”

Rehak said she was not surprised that the team couldn’t get organized enough to set up a reunion this month because “everyone is so spread out.” Three players, however, live nearby in Ventura County. Rehak and Chandler live in Oxnard and Branigan in Camarillo. Nancy Hallman, a reserve on the team, also lived in Ventura County before recently moving away.

Callison, known as the team’s super-sub, said it was important to give credit to the coaching staff. “Assistant coach Paula Moran brought us together. She knew the basketball skills and Harvey knew how to manage the team. It was a good combination.”

Chandler has been the one player who has continued ties with El Camino Real. She coached softball there for 15 years and guided the team to two City Section titles. Still working as a teacher at El Camino Real, Chandler remains friends with many of her former 1979 teammates and calls Monroe “good people.”

The El Camino Real High School girls basketball players celebrate after winning the finals of the Tournament of Champions at Oakland Coliseum on March 10, 1979.
The El Camino Real High School girls basketball players celebrate after winning the finals of the Tournament of Champions at Oakland Coliseum on March 10, 1979. (Karl Rehak)

With El Camino Real enjoying a blowout in the state tournament finale, Monroe found herself on the court for the emotional final moments.

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . I dropped to my knees and thanked the Lord for our miracle,” Monroe said. “Then I joined in the joyful celebration. As I began reflecting, I recall jammin’ to ‘We Will Rock You,’ and ‘We Are the Champions’ on the team bus after our state championship win. We were a happy group of young ladies.”

For Monroe, it was personally satisfying because she had devoted herself to basketball since she was a pre-teen, competing in five summer basketball camps, two club teams, a park league and a summer league.

“I don’t want it to be like ‘nobody remembers,’ ” she said.

“It was meaningful to me because basketball has been a big part of my life. It was a childhood dream come true.”

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