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Girls' Programs on Rise Facing a New Challenge : Century, Laguna Hills, Westminster Ready for Title Runs

February 13, 1996|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The game is no longer a marathon, but a sprint. The only thing that matters in the playoffs is who can survive single-elimination.

It is a strange position to be in for three Orange County girls' basketball teams that have finally won a marathon and now must negotiate a mad dash for a Southern Section division championship.

Century, Laguna Hills and Westminster won league titles for the first time in their programs' histories. All set school records for victories, and all enter the playoffs with an advantage they never have had--confidence.

Three teams, three different paths to the title. In years past, they could largely be ignored.

Not anymore.

*

Few programs have experienced the depths to which Westminster had plunged. Before the 1994-95 season, the Lions' best effort was 12-12 in 1985. Then they fell into oblivion--1-99 the next five years.

Dick Katz changed that. A former boys' coach at Westminster, Katz has slowly built a winner over five years, from 4-16 his first season--when the Lions were in the Sunset League--to 17-8 last year, when the Lions tied for second in the Golden West League.

Perhaps no program elicited more controversy this season than Westminster (21-4, 9-1 in league), which benefited from new statewide open enrollment policies and won a share (with Ocean View) of its first league title.

Three of Westminster's five starters when the Lions open the Division I-A playoffs will have transferred to the school in the last two years--Tanzenika Holmes and Letty Gil, both from Santa Ana, and Lan Erickson, from Rancho Alamitos. Jennifer Gray, who arrived from Detroit, has been averaging nine points and six rebounds as a reserve.

Holmes, a powerfully built 5-foot-11 post player, and Gil, a guard, seemed the perfect complements for post player Kristin Schult and sharp-shooting Erin Moore.

Holmes' presence as a rebounder and scorer created opportunities for Schult, a long-armed, 6-2 center with a sweet jump shot.

Schult, the top returning player, averaged 13.8 points and six rebounds.

Holmes also has benefited from having another offensive force on the team. She averaged 14 points and 8.2 rebounds.

And Gil (6.4 assists) did her part, breaking presses and distributing the ball.

Gray (6-0), a cousin of formerMater Dei standout Miles Simon, is similar to Holmes--very athletic and physical. But she has accepted her backup role.

A tainted title?

"I know the people will say our transfers have done it. And to a certain extent, for us to be where we're at, they're right," Katz said. "But we were going to win this year anyway--we had a good group of kids back."

He continued: "Gray was not a factor. There's no doubt about the help Holmes and Gil have given this program. I think we would have been good without them, but not to this level. But that's no different than [Rhonda] Gondringer or [Melody] Peterson going to Mater Dei, or Woodbridge, or other programs."

Gondringer (from La Quinta) is in her second year at Mater Dei and Peterson (Monrovia) is in her third. Most of the county's best programs have been strengthened by transfers.

This season, it was Westminster's turn.

*

During the last five seasons, while going 57-61 overall, Century always had one goal: make the playoffs. Which it did. But something different about this season made Coach Jeff Watts do a double-take and shift that annual focus.

Junior Allison Napier transferred to Century from Santa Ana Valley. A freshman, Aprile Powell, half-sister to sophomore Nikki Love, turned out to be a woman in girls' sneakers. Napier (6 feet 2), Powell (6-2) and Love (6-3) combined to give the Centurions one of the county's tallest front courts and offset the loss of point guard Yvette Martinez, whose season ended with a knee injury.

"Before this year," Watts said, "we've had only one player taller than 5-9 in six years."

Powell has averaged 17.2 points and 11.1 rebounds. Napier has averaged 12.1 points and 8.9 rebounds. Love averaged eight points and six rebounds before becoming academically ineligible. The team was dealt a blow Monday when it learned she would miss the Division I-A playoffs, the section's toughest division.

Those players brought out the competitive nature of their teammates, who stepped up their level of play. Add another transfer from Santa Ana Valley, junior guard Debbi Arostigue (whose mother works at Century), and the Centurions had depth for the first time in the program's history.

Just like that, Century became a contender in the Empire League. The new goal was to win the league title, which it shared with El Dorado.

The Centurions (21-3, 9-1) built a nice foundation for the next couple seasons:

* Century's league title was the school's first girls' title in any sport.

* When the team played Thursday at El Dorado, it marked the first time the program used a rooters' bus.

* The team shattered the school record for victories (14).

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