Los Angeles Windward girls ready to take place among top teams

For the Windward High girls' basketball team, winning a state championship last season wasn't enough.

"We haven't gotten any respect," said Texas-bound senior Imani Stafford.

That's what happens when you're a Division 4 school in California, a hotbed for girls' basketball. And that's why Windward, which has fewer than 400 students in grades ninth through 12th, has added to its schedule this year a game against perennial superpower Long Beach Poly, which has more than 4,000 students. The Wildcats will also play defending Division I champion Santa Ana Mater Dei and basketball powerhouse Brea Olinda.

"It's a huge jump," said Windward Coach Steve Smith. "But I think we'll be able to compete with them."

The Wildcats have a talent-laden roster that includes Stafford, a 6-foot-7 center who is about a foot taller than most of her teammates. She averaged 12.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.3 blocks last season and made the USA women's under-19 basketball team this summer — but was unable to compete because of a broken pelvic bone.

"When she's healthy, she gives you something no one else has," said Mater Dei Coach Kevin Kiernan.

Stafford, who has been sidelined since June, played in her first game Tuesday. In eight minutes, she had seven points, five rebounds and four blocked shots as the Wildcats routed Anaheim Canyon, 79-58.

"Without me, they're great," Stafford said. "With me, they're going to be excellent."

The team also has sophomore Jordin Canada, a quick point guard whom Stafford calls "our little M.J.," because her fancy footwork and silky dribbling skills remind her of Michael Jordan. Canada averaged 12.5 points and five assists last season and helped the USA women's under-16 team win a gold medal in Mexico in June.

Last season, the Wildcats were undefeated in league play, finished with a 29-4 record and won their first state championship in school history. But this season, they want more.

"I feel that we have the potential to obviously be better than we were last year based on the fact that we have 90% of our team coming back and we have five of our top six scorers coming back," Smith said. "The tough part is that we're going to have a target on our back."

Stafford, however, doesn't feel as if Windward is the prey. She feels as if it's the hunter.

After all, she said that some of the top teams in the state weren't willing to play a Division 4 Windward squad last season.

"We finally have the opportunity we've all been begging for," Stafford said. "It is now or never."

melissa.rohlin@latimes.com

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