Mike Lassalette, first-year coach of the girls basketball team at Edgewood High in West Covina, is not exactly a stranger to coaching basketball.
He has just been away from it for a while.
The 48-year-old Lassalette had been successful as coach of the Edgewood boys from 1970 through 1978, producing consistently strong teams and players such as Jeff Cook of the NBA's Phoenix Suns.
But Lassalette decided to stop coaching after 1978 to focus on his job as the school's athletic director and to devote more time to his family.
It is no accident that the Edgewood girls team has blossomed into one of the best in the CIF Southern Section under Lassalette.
After struggling to an 11-11 record and missing the playoffs last season, the Trojans--with many of the same players--have a 23-0 record and are seeded No. 3 in the CIF 2-A Division heading into the playoffs. Edgewood, one of only four undefeated teams in the 479-school Southern Section, is ranked No. 4 in the state Division III by Cal-Hi Sports News of Sacramento.
An auspicious return to coaching, to say the least.
Lassalette didn't consider coaching again until Diane Groh, who coached the Trojans last season, was released as a result of financial cutbacks by the West Covina Unified School District.
"Rather than turn the program over to a new coach, who was unfamiliar with the players, I told the principal I would be willing to take over the team for a year," Lassalette said.
And the Trojans were more than happy to have Lassalette.
Senior Kim Hansen, a 6-1 forward who is considered the team's top player, said having Lassalette has made all the difference.
"Mr. Lassalette is out to win and that has always been his reputation," Hansen said. "If we were down in a tournament, he'd get us inside the locker room and encourage us to win. He's a hyper kind of guy. He knows how to get us going.
"I think with any other coach we wouldn't have an undefeated record. He has changed us."
She said the Trojans were talented last season, too, but may have lacked in other areas.
"I think we were hoping to make it into one of the top three positions and get into the CIF playoffs, but it was a little disappointing," Hansen recalled. "We thought we would do better; we lost some games that we shouldn't have lost."
From the moment he assumed control of the Trojans during the summer, Lassalette made sure that they were aware of his ground rules.
"This is my first year ever coaching girls basketball, so it's a new experience for me," he said. "But I told them the first day that I'd handle it just like the boys team, and I would expect them to have discipline both on and off the court, including the classroom. So far they've done that."
If the Trojans appear to play with discipline, Hansen says it has a lot to do with the way they practice.
"They're not necessarily tougher than before, but he makes sure he gets his point across to us," Hansen said. "Sometimes he yells at us to get us motivated. But we get along well."
Lassalette said the combination of four key veterans plus the addition of two excellent sophomores has given the Trojans the personnel to be successful.
Hansen, who averages 16.5 points and 11 rebounds, has received a lot of the credit for the success, and Lassalette said it is well-deserved.
"She's our leader, no doubt about it," the coach said of Hansen, who has made a verbal commitment to attend Cal State Fullerton next season. "She can handle the basketball and she can rebound. She's also handling the pressure on the press. She's the one the others look to down the stretch."
Edgewood is by no means a one-player team, though.
There are seniors Shannon Smith (5-10) at forward, Niki Jones (6-1) at center and Judy Nguyen (5-4) at point guard. The sophomores are 6-2 center Ingrid Dixon and 5-6 guard Lisa Sloan, both up from the junior varsity. Dixon is averaging 13.1 points and 12.2 rebounds and Nguyen 9 assists.
"Kim's our one recruited player, but they're a unit," Lassalette said. "She's one of about six (of our) girls that can play basketball and they work well together. . . . You're not going to stop us by stopping one girl because we play good defense, and that's been the key."
There is no question about Edgewood's defense. The Trojans have outscored opponents by an average of about 56 to 30.
The Trojans have a big front line with Hansen, Dixon and Jones. "We can go 6-1 across if we want to," Lassalette said. "When you have three girls who are 6-0 and can rebound, you should be able to win."
Still, Lassalette said he would have never dreamed that the Trojans would be undefeated entering the playoffs.
"We thought we would be a good team," he said. "We knew we would be good, but we didn't know we'd hit this level."
The success has not surprised Hansen.