With the sun descending behind the nearby Verdugo Mountains, painting a pink February hue over luscious green, another night of basketball is set to begin on the hilly campus of Glendale College.
“Welcome to historic Verdugo Gym!” the public-address announcer says. “These are your Lady Vaqueros!”
The enthusiasm for the Lady Vaqs has blossomed in recent years, reaching full bloom this season thanks to a touch of intrigue no one could have predicted for a community college women’s basketball program that has no championship banners. The fresh fervor comes partly because they’re winning lots of games, and partly due to the novelty factor attached to one of the team’s starting guards.
“They always walk in and go, ‘Which one is it?’ ” says Glendale athletic director Chris Cicuto. “They’ve heard the rumors, and they’ve got to see it with their own eyes.”
So, which one is it?
“At guard, a 5-3 freshman out of Glendale High, No. 4, Vicky Oganyan!”
“At the other guard, a 5-3 sophomore out of Temple City, No. 12, Penelope Trieu!”
That the freshman is 21 years older than the sophomore can force a double-take, but one would have to be informed first to realize it. If you didn’t know, it would be hard to figure, which is a credit to Oganyan, Glendale’s 40-year-old freshman. Her age makes for a catchy headline, but there’s much more to the tale of Vicky and the Vaqueros, who feel like they’re on a march toward the school’s first state championship.
Vicky wants only to blend in, not to be a distraction. Tonight, she and her teammates are wearing Glendale’s home whites with maroon and gold trim. Vicky sports black ankle-high socks under black sneakers, and her dark brown hair is pulled back in a long ponytail. Aside from being the shortest player on the team, she fits.
Watch closely and you can pick out which of the Lady Vaqs grew up during the Reagan administration. The daughter of Armenian immigrants, Vicky is the lone Glendale player who puts her hand over her heart during the national anthem.
Then there’s the way she plays the game — with the know-how of a veteran coach.
“Thank you, Vicky Oganyan!” the P.A. announcer bellows after she steals the ball under the Glendale basket and flings it behind her back to Trieu for a layup.
“Bingo!” he says minutes later when Vicky makes a three-point shot.
“Way to sacrifice your body, 4!” a man yells from the stands after Vicky sets a pick and gets bulldozed, sending her to the floor.
Vicky would do anything to win, and now, as a player, she has reclaimed control over her destiny after so frequently feeling helpless as a coach. The 40-year-old freshman doesn’t take any of the 40 minutes for granted. In this way, she stands out too.
But, despite the bombast of her athletic director’s pronouncement, Vicky’s performance here is not some kind of circus act — although she has become an elite juggler, seamlessly moving between her job at Burbank Burroughs High as an anatomy and biology teacher and her position as the girls’ basketball coach and her now-resumed role as college student, taking 12 online credits per semester to be eligible to play for Glendale.
“I’m like, do you have three of you, three clones?” says Lar Chouljian, marveling at her longtime friend from the bleachers.
Chouljian and Vicky grew up playing basketball together in the annual Armenian summer tournament, and while Chouljian went to College of the Canyons to play basketball after high school, Vicky did not follow that path.
“I always thought she should be playing college ball,” Chouljian says. “I mean, she looks like she’s in her prime now, but if she was 21, she might have gone even further, you know?”
This game against College of the Canyons is a routine whipping for the Lady Vaqs, 71-48. The P.A. guy alerts the crowd that Glendale has set a school record for wins with 23.
Afterward, Vicky rushes to her car and hightails it back to Burroughs, where her day started 12 hours earlier with biology class. The first round of the Southern Section playoffs is the next night, and this will be a crucial practice for her girls.
The front desk receptionist at Burroughs escorts a visitor down the hallway toward Oganyan’s classroom.
“We are so lucky to have such a phenomenal teacher and coach,” Linda Rosen says. “She doesn’t ask them to do anything she wouldn’t do.”
Vicky wants her large rectangular lab-style room to represent who she is, so one wall is lined with newspaper clippings and photo collages comprising her 16 Burroughs teams, the girls who have given her a purpose but no Southern Section or state titles to this point.
In 2011, Vicky led Burroughs to its first league championship in 33 years, and they won six in a row from there.
Her biology and anatomy students have no problem dissecting Vicky’s divided brain. To the right of her desk hang two posters. One is of Spud Webb, known for being able to dunk a basketball despite being just 5 feet 7. The other is of Albert Einstein, known for developing the theory of relativity. There are street signs for “Basketball Blvd.” and “Science St.”
But, for as much as Vicky can teach her kids about a medulla oblongata, science is a means to an end. Teaching keeps her young and gives her a steady job so that she has the freedom to obsess about basketball.
She has a small hoop hanging by her desk, and sometimes, she will offer extra credit to students who can make a shot after answering a question. “Most of my kids in these classes can’t shoot, so they never make it,” she says.
Vicky wasn’t born with a shooter’s touch either. Her father, Vrej, taught her to play chess, and she became an advanced tactician for her age. She played the piano too. These activities made sense to Vrej and Vicky’s mother, Marina. After all, they chose to leave their positions as a music school principal and doctor, respectively, in Yerevan, Armenia, to give their eventual children more opportunity in America.
Sports were an afterthought in the Oganyan household, but, around 10 years old, Vicky found basketball.
“I was a Bulls fan, Michael Jordan,” she says. “I would watch every game, then go downstairs and try to imitate some of the moves. We didn’t even have a basket. We had a garage with pipes and stuff, and I’d use a tennis ball to try to dunk on the pipes.”
To Vrej, it felt like in the snap of a finger his little Victoria was playing way less chess.
“At the beginning, we were telling her, ‘You like basketball, but it’s not for you,’ ” Vrej, 74, says. “She’s a little short. Usually, basketball players should be a little longer. She’s telling us, ‘It’s OK, I will play good and then you can see that,’ and really she played very nice.”
When the time came to make a decision about college, Vicky knew she wanted to continue playing. She would have to go to a junior college, though, and her parents wanted her at a four-year university.
Vrej does not feel today that he and Marina forced her to attend Cal State Northridge and give up basketball.
“To them it might not feel like they gave an ultimatum,” Vicky says, “but when they talk about something, it is an ultimatum.”
Unable to play, other than in the Armenian league, she became an assistant coach. By 24, she was the head coach at Burroughs. In 2016, she joined Joel Weiss’ staff as an assistant at Glendale College too. She got to recruit some of the best prep players in the area.
Tess Oakley-Stilson played for a club team that Vicky coached, and Vicky wanted her at Glendale.
“I was in that position where I could either go to UC San Diego and not play basketball but go to a good school that I wanted to go to, or I could come here and play basketball,” Tess recalls. “She told me that she had the opportunity as well, and she chose to just go to school and she kind of let go of her basketball dream, and that she really regretted that.”
Tess chose to play for the Lady Vaqs. A sophomore now, she is considering playing for a bigger school next year.
Vicky was busy convincing others to not make the same mistake she felt she had made. But what about going back in time and righting her own wrong? It was always in her mind — a “buzz in the brain,” she calls it — that she had never used her college eligibility. And, now a part of Glendale practices and pickup games, she could see that her skills were still sharp.
Last summer, she began to confide in friends that she was thinking of playing. Soon, she would tell Weiss the good news: His top assistant was now his point guard.
Vicky’s days are a three-change-of-clothes blur, a constant-GPS-checking challenge.
On this day, Vicky will teach all morning, host her Burroughs team for a lunch in her classroom for a last-minute film review, drive to Glendale for practice and weights, and then it’s 90 minutes at rush hour to Ventura for a playoff game at St. Bonaventure High.
“She likes it too much, basketball,” says Vrej, who lost Marina to colon cancer in 2006. “For her, that’s the No. 1, everything coming after basketball. Sometimes I tell her, ‘Where’s your personal life?’ She tells me, ‘That’s my personal life.’ What can I tell her?”
There is another existence out there. Career. Kids. No basketball. The way Vicky sees it, why should she have to choose that hustle over this one? “I don’t feel like following a specific societal expectation,” Vicky says, “like there’s only one right way to do it. I think the way you make yourself happy is doing things that you love.”
Weiss realized Vicky’s passion for the game was unique the moment he met her. He has enjoyed coaching her as a player this year, but he sees her coaching career as “limitless” because of her natural way of relating to young players.
As a point guard, she is averaging 6.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 32.7 minutes a game, but her impact goes beyond numbers.
“I always feel so much more secure when she’s on the floor,” Oakley-Stilson says.
As Tess talks, Vicky is on the road to Ventura, where she will take Burroughs into battle.
The first half does not go according to plan for Burroughs, and Vicky lays into the girls in the locker room during a six-minute tirade. “Tomorrow, if you lose, there is no more basketball tomorrow!” Vicky screams. “There is no tired right now. There is no time. Beginning of the third quarter, we’re not waiting. Let’s go!”
No more basketball tomorrow is Vicky’s greatest fear. Her players find it in themselves to play more like their coach in the second half, coming from behind to win 51-48 in overtime.
Burroughs would go on to win two more games, making the Southern Section semifinal and qualifying for state for the first time in program history. But the Indians would lose the last two games they play, leaving Vicky gutted.
“Am I the only not-normal person who cares and is depressed over losing?” she writes in a text message. “I still can’t live with knowing I could have done a better job. I’m not sure why I take it so hard, but ever since I played in high school losing made me cry and losing big games like this playing or coaching just crush me.”
The weekend would bring more heartbreak. Glendale lost to Palomar College, in the second round of the state playoffs. But maybe this year was only the start of the dream. The hope around the program is that Vicky will be a 41-year-old sophomore.