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PREP BASKETBALL STATE TOURNAMENT : After Shaky Early Season, Costa Mesa Found Solid Path to State


COSTA MESA — There was a time this season when the Costa Mesa girls' basketball team was mediocre.

They had a 3-4 record and a bad attitude.

They were hapless and bumbling.

And Heather Robinson said what was exactly on her teammates' minds after losing to Gahr in the Brea-Olinda Ladycat Classic.

"We heard you were a good coach," Robinson said to Lisa McNamee, "and you would coach us out of a jam."

McNamee's jaw dropped. Then she spoke her mind.

"Once you get on the court, you're responsible for executing what you have learned," she said. "I only can only prepare you for the game."

It was a long heart-to-heart talk that afternoon between first-year coach and players. It was the last time Costa Mesa lost.

It was 26 games ago.

The Mustangs leave at noon today for Oakland, where they will play Sacramento St. Francis at 5 p.m. Saturday for the Girls' Division III State Championship.

It's a long way from 3-4.

"We literally ran into each other at the Brea tournament," McNamee recalled. "I told them, 'You have to stop your old ways and trust me and the staff, do what we tell you to do and if it doesn't work, it will be our fault.' "

It was a meeting that cleared the air. It was not only a turning point in the Mustangs' season but a starting-over point.

"She really wanted us to move the ball and get a lot of motion," said Olivia DiCamilli, a senior forward averaging 23.6 points. "She was really into the team concept--pass the ball around a lot and get everyone into the offense."

It was in stark contrast to their style under former coach Jim Weeks, who still directed Costa Mesa to the Southern Section III-A final. DiCamilli called the offense during her junior season "a free-for-all," in which players took it upon themselves to score. It bred selfishness, big egos and bad feelings.

McNamee understands the importance of team concept. She was an assistant at Stanford when the Cardinal won the NCAA women's championship in 1992. And she had coached successfully at Estancia six years before that.

The Mustangs followed that post-Gahr meeting by winning for the first time its Costa Mesa Winter Classic. Then came the Pacific Coast League schedule, which was soft enough to give the Mustangs time to jell and remain unbeaten.

The final game of the regular season represented the team's second turning point. McNamee was serving a one-game suspension while her players put the finishing touches on the PCL title.

McNamee served the suspension for using outside players to participate in scrimmages with her team. When the game ended, McNamee entered the gym, helped cut down the nets and went off to party. It was there McNamee saw what she had been looking for all season.

"I saw it in their eyes--they were ready to get after it," McNamee said. "They had had enough, and them being a good team had nothing to do with those outside people coming in to practice twice against them."

The performance--and attitude--was a self-defiant in-your-face to those who were out to get the Mustang program.

"That night was Senior Night and we were so intense," DiCamilli said. "It was the first game where I felt everyone was really intense--everything flowed really well--and the chemistry was there. It was kind of weird because we never let down after that game. We kept the intensity and the teamwork going.

"Maybe we were so mad that it happened to us that we went out there more focused. We had heard that a lot of people around the county really wanted to get us and that made us mad, and that was the perfect time to show that we had something to prove."

Costa Mesa has since reeled off seven playoff victories against competition that isn't considered soft. Among those victories was a 49-46 decision over Inglewood Morningside to win the Southern California championship.

Hardly mediocre.

"I think we all realized we were going to have to put out all our effort to make things work," DiCamilli said. "We couldn't put out 50% and make things work. We had to give 100%.

"I think any team that's not giving 100% is beatable."

Which says something about Costa Mesa's turnaround.

And now, Oakland.

Saturday's Division III Girls

Costa Mesa vs. Sacramento St. Francis, 5 p.m.

SITE--Oakland Coliseum Arena

RECORDS--Costa Mesa (29-4), St. Francis (26-5).

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