Frank Scott's biggest problem is one that most high school coaches would trade their best player for: His Morningside High School girls basketball team can't lose a league game. The conference is simply no competition.
"It really isn't," Scott said. "We usually play a tough preseason, but after we get into league, it's a letdown. It's tough to get back up for CIF (playoffs)."
The Monarchs have won four straight league titles, two in the Ocean League and two in the Pioneer League, without a loss.
And this year should be no different. The Monarchs, returning all 12 players from a team that went to the CIF quarterfinals, are off to a 13-2 start against a tough set of pre-league opponents and are ranked third in The Times Top 10. Only Redondo High should present a league challenge to the Monarchs and Scott does not compare Redondo to CIF title contenders.
Morningside lost to second-ranked Lynwood, 65-54, and seventh-rated Louisville by a point. Victory margins have been as much as 50 points. The Monarchs open league play today at Leuzinger High.
"I still don't think it will be much of a challenge," Scott said. "I'm not knocking the other teams in the league. They're doing the best they can. But if we got in a tougher league, it might prepare us better.
"I'd rather be in the Ocean League. There's better competition with schools like Culver City, Inglewood and Santa Monica. Next year is a re-leaguing year and there's a chance we might change. But I don't think any other leagues want us."
The Monarchs are led by senior Tia Thomas, an all-CIF guard and co-most valuable player of the Pioneer League last season, who has accepted a scholarship from New Mexico State. She is averaging 14 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds a game.
"She scored 21 points a game last year because she had to. She doesn't need to this year" because of a stronger supporting cast, Scott said. "She's the best shooting guard I've had since I've been coaching girls basketball."
And Thomas' numbers are not as impressive as another number on the team: 1. That's the total of seniors. "Oh, we'll be tough next year once I find somebody to take Thomas' spot," Scott said.
His impressive crop of underclassmen includes Shaunda Greene, a junior forward who was all-CIF and co-Pioneer League MVP with Thomas last season, and Carla Gladden, a junior point guard who was an all-Pioneer selection.
Greene is averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. Gladden, who is scoring about 11 points a game and averages 8 assists and 4 steals, is one of the finest point guards in the Southland, Scott said.
"I think she's the best point guard in the state, but I'm biased," he said. "She makes it awful tough for a team to press us because she handles the ball so well."
Then there is 6-4 freshman center Lisa Leslie. She has averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocked shots, impressive numbers for a 14-year-old, and they are bound to improve over the next three years.
"It's taking some getting used to," Scott said of Leslie's adaptation to varsity basketball. "Playing against the better schools, she's not able to do the things she did in junior high. All the schools we play are already double-teaming her."
Scott knows how tough Leslie will be after she grows and gains weight. "If she keeps growing," Scott said, "she'll be awesome."
And the college scouts will surely take note, the coach said. "I'm probably going to have to hide her out somewhere. She's probably going to be one of the most highly recruited athletes to come out of this area, girl or boy."
But neither her success nor the Monarchs' has come easy, Scott said, even though the team has been winning by 25 points a game. "We're in two or three leagues in the summer," he said. "If you want to be good, it's a year-round proposition."
And those summer leagues offer more competition than the Pioneer, Scott said. "We play a lot of teams that we'll see in CIF."
The Monarchs have scheduled a non-league game against powerful Hawthorne in the middle of their Pioneer schedule to prepare for CIF. Still, the team is always searching for ways to be challenged during the league season.
"So during the (league) season we play some games against the (Morningside boys) freshman-sophomore teams," Scott said. "We played them a couple of times last year and we beat them by a couple of points.
"They don't like that," Scott added with a smile. "Who wants to get beat by some girls?"
Most of the CIF girls leagues begin play this week. The Ocean League appears to be exceptionally tough, with Hawthorne, led by all-CIF forward Andrea Kabwasa, battling Inglewood and Santa Monica for the title. Hawthorne also has all-league guard Angie Wells.
In the Bay League, now in the 3-A Division, two-time defending champ South Torrance again will challenge for the title.
In the 2-A Camino Real League, St. Mary's Academy is ready to defend its title, with 6-1 Shunda Thompson joining returning starters Tammy Booker, Erin Banks and Monette Miller. Booker, a 5-6 junior guard, was the league's top player as a sophomore. St. Bernard and Mary Star of the Sea should provide the top competition. The Vikings are led by all-leaguer Felecia Dixon, while Mary Star features all-South Bay guard Tiffany Carresi.