What’s the best way to erase the memory of a winless season? If you’re the Laguna Beach High girls’ basketball team, you do it by winning a season-opening record of six straight games, including a victory last Saturday in the finals of the Oxford Academy Tournament in Cypress, the program’s first tournament title.
“Quite a different season, huh,” said second year coach Mark Lewis, still basking in the victory two days later. “It was great for the girls to see them on the right side of the score board.”
Last season, Lewis guided his team of two juniors, five sophomores and one freshman through a character-building 18-loss schedule that included schools of all sizes, most of them larger. But even the smaller schools had longer and deeper benches than the first year coach. A few of the games were close, like the one-point loss to division 1 Anaheim, but most were not; however, Lewis knew that help was on the way.
Last March, with Lewis as their coach, eighth-graders Alexandra Lewis, Francesca Cecutti, Murphy Thompson, Nicole Davidson, Ashley Brown, Sydney DeCarlo, and Jackie Cenan led the Laguna Beach girls’ Division 1 club team to a National Junior Basketball championship tournament title. A few months later, they joined Lewis’ Breakers for summer competition. “I knew that they definitely had some talent,” he said.
Two of those freshmen, Lewis and Cenan, start for the Breakers, and have been instrumental in the team’s early success, as has nearly every member of the now 16-player roster. “They don’t worry about who the freshman, who the sophomore, who the junior, who the senior is,” said coach Lewis. All the they care about is that “we’re Laguna Beach and we’re here to play.”
“The team is like a big family. We work so well together,” said Cenan, who leads the Breakers with 18.8 points and 9.7 rebounds a game and was named the Oxford Academy tournament MVP.
Though she’s only six games into her high school career, Cenan is putting up numbers that rival the career averages of Emily Writer (’11), Laguna’s all-time leading scorer. What’s more impressive is Cenan picked up the game only three years ago in Romania, where she lived for a time with her parents before returning to the United States and enrolling at Thurston Middle School as a seventh grader.
The U.S. style of play is more sophisticated, according to Cenan, but the European girls are more physical, which helped the 5’9” forward develop her fearless, slashing style. “I like driving. That’s my thing,” she said.
Lewis learned a lesson from last season’s schedule. Instead of a big school first approach, he decided to start small, scheduling division 5A Connelly (Anaheim) and Sage Hill to kick off the season. The first two games of the four-game tournament were against division 4 Oxford Academy (Cypress) and division 5 Bethel Baptist (Santa Ana). “I think those first four were important for us to give us some confidence in learning how to win and getting some belief in our selves,” he said.
The strategy worked, as division 4A Laguna beat division 3A Ocean View (Huntington Beach), holding them scoreless in the third quarter of the semifinals. They followed that performance with a thrilling overtime victory over division 3AAA Western for the title. “It was really an intense game,” said Cenan. “You can really tell how much we’ve improved during that game. We weren’t panicked at all.”
One of the big reasons they were so calm was that Lewis had them prepared. He had watched Western play their semifinal game, and devised a defensive scheme around stopping Western’s senior center Darshana Taafua, whose 23 points a game was third in the division coming in. “We double teamed her,” said Cenan. “I got to drive on her a bunch of times, and she got fouled out.” Taafua finished with only eight points.
Junior Kyra Humphries and Lewis’ daughter Alexandra, the team’s second and third leading scorers, were also named to the all-tournament team along with Cenan. Junior center Jane Wallin, who is becoming a force in the middle, and senior point guard Kylie Even round out a versatile starting five. All are on pace to score more than 100 points this season.
“I don’t really care who scores, as long as we score,” said Lewis. “It may be one day Jackie doing what she does. It might be Jane in the middle. It may be Kylie or Alexandra shooting from the outside. We can go with whatever the defense gives us.”
Even with all their offensive tools, the hallmark of this Breaker team is defense. They average a CIF leading 21.8 steals a game, many of which are converted into easy buckets. They also average 36.5 rebounds a game, good for seventh place in their division.
It’s been eight years since Laguna won its only league title. “They see the banners in the gym,” said Lewis. “And they do see the fact that there’s only one year up on the girls basketball banner, and they’d like to put a couple more notches up there.”
But Lewis keeps them focused on much more immediate goals than hanging a banner. Each game he challenges them to hold their opponent under 30 points, limit their own turnovers, and win every quarter. “If we can do those things, I like our chances,” he said.