When a team plays in the shadow of the powerful girls' basketball programs at Buena and Santa Barbara highs, it's often difficult to measure success.
Ventura Coach Glenn Gray knew his team had talent this year despite a less-than-glamorous 15-9 regular-season record and a third-place finish in the Channel League. When the Cougars received an at-large berth in the Southern Section 4-AA Division playoffs, they wanted to make the most of their chance.
With league foes Buena and Santa Barbara in the 5-A playoffs, Ventura has seized the opportunity to show what it can do. The Cougars (19-9) have won four consecutive games and suddenly find themselves in the final against top-seeded Pasadena Muir (25-5) at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Cal Poly Pomona.
"We were just happy to make the playoffs," said Gray, in his second year at the school. "When we got here, it was our goal to do well. We're a young team, so of course we're elated at being in the finals. I guess all of our tough competition paid off."
Ventura lost three games to Buena and two to Santa Barbara during the season. The Cougars also dropped a pair to Westlake, which eliminated them in the second round last year.
Following a 61-34 victory over Bishop Amat in the opening round, Ventura got revenge against Westlake, 50-46. It went on to defeat Edison, 55-40, in the quarterfinals and Loara, 40-39, in the semifinals. Ventura trailed Loara, 39-34, with 30 seconds to play before rallying for the victory.
"Playing hard basketball has been our motto all season," said Gray, whose son, Glenn Gray II, coaches the junior varsity. "We play tough defense. We're not big, so we have to rely on our quickness."
The heart of the team is 5-foot-7 guard/forward Cori Herman, a junior averaging 16.5 points a game. The rest of the lineup includes 5-foot-7 guards Andrew Williams and Wendy Ward, 5-foot-9 forward Denise Rea (10 points) and 5-10 center Nicole Carroll. Ward and Rea are sophomores.
Muir is in the final for the fifth time in the past seven years. It lost to Katella, 54-48, in the championship game last season.
"I honestly didn't expect to be playing Ventura for the title," said Muir Coach Mel Sims, whose team won the Pacific League with a 9-1 record. "I don't know anything about their team or any of their players. We don't scout games, so we'll just stick to our normal game plan and hope that works. It normally does."
Muir is much bigger than Ventura, with 6-1 forward Linda Armstong leading the way. Armstrong (14.5 points a game) receives plenty of support from 5-10 forward Karen Banks (13.5), 6-1 center Josie Pacheco (12.5), 5-2 guard Rose Jong (8.5 and 10.1 assists) and 5-9 guard Taunya Johnson (6.5 points).
Other playoff games involving Ventura County teams include:
Buena (26-0) vs. Hart (24-4), 6:45 p.m. Friday, UC Irvine Bren Center, girls' 5-A championship: This is a rematch of last year's 5-A semifinal game, which Hart won, 78-68. The Indians went on to win the championship with a 63-49 victory over Santa Barbara.
The circumstances are a bit different this season. Buena is undefeated and the top seed in the division. The Bulldogs easily defeated Hart, 48-30, in the semifinals of the Simi Valley tournament.
"I'm sure Hart is a better team than they were earlier this season," said Buena Coach Joe Vaughan, who is 352-29 in 15 seasons at the school. "They have outstanding athletes and we will have to do a good job to beat them."
Buena features a balanced attack. The statistical leader is 5-11 senior center Nicole Ellis, who is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds. Mia Palkie, a 5-8 junior guard, adds 10 points a game.
Hart is under the direction of first-year Coach Dave Munroe, who was an assistant for the boys' team from 1977-87.
Munroe looked to 6-3 senior center Sara Wilson to provide the leadership on a team made up mostly of younger players. The Oregon-bound Wilson is averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds. The biggest surprise is 5-7 sophomore guard Anjanette Dionne, who leads the team with a 23-point average.
Santa Clara (23-0) vs. Verbum Dei (14-12), 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Sports Arena, boys' 2-AA championship: Santa Clara, the defending 2-A champion, has been No. 1 all season and is the top seed. The Saints have breezed through the playoffs with victories over Pius X, Chaminade and Tehachapi.
Verbum Dei has been impressive in playoff wins over Twentynine Palms, Santa Margarita, and Banning.
Shon Tarver, Santa Clara's 6-5 senior guard, is averaging 31 points a game.