Perseverance pays off and the Nordhoff High girls' basketball team is poised to reap its rewards this season.
After finishing second in the Frontier League during the 1995-96 season, two games behind Moorpark, the Rangers caught the Musketeers last season and shared the league title. Now, they're ready to claim the crown for themselves.
"[The league favorite] is probably Nordhoff," Moorpark Coach Brent Milburn said. "We lost  points per game to graduation and we have some inexperience showing."
That's the opening Nordhoff needs. The Rangers, who have made impressive playoff runs the past two seasons, return four starters, led by the standout senior duo of point guard Nell Becker and forward Erin Barker.
The league's best player is Moorpark's Damaris Hinojosa, and the Ranger-Musketeer games will be dogfights. Santa Clara, last year's third-place finisher, has earned respect with disciplined play but is unlikely to climb higher. Calabasas, Santa Paula and Malibu bring up the rear.
At Nordhoff, Becker, 5 feet 6, averages 15 points and 7.4 assists and is the Rangers' career leader in assists and three-point baskets. Barker, 5-9, averages 17.2 points and is the program's career scoring leader.
But whereas last season the pair accounted for nearly 75% of the team's shots, this season they're shooting only about half of the team's total.
"We know if we're going to advance farther in the playoffs we have to have more than two people who can score," said first-year Ranger Coach Ted Cotti, an assistant last season.
When she's not in foul trouble, 6-5 center Christen Roper alters the game. The junior averages 10.3 points and 11.6 rebounds but plays only between 12 and 16 minutes a game. Nonetheless, she is being recruited by Division I colleges.
Senior forward Laura Underwood is the team's defensive stopper and freshman guard Melody Shedlosky has been a find for the future. Senior Rachel Tenpenny and junior Cambria Vogel rotate in to spell Roper.
Cotti, formerly the boys' coach at Villanova Prep, has tinkered only slightly with the schemes run by former Ranger coach Jack Smith, who retired for health reasons at the end of last season. Nordhoff has focused more on defense in the first half of this season.
Defense is the rage at Moorpark, which graduated point guard Tracey Milburn and her 17.2 scoring average and is hunkering down after advancing to the Southern Section Division II-A title game last season.
"We don't score as much but we don't allow as much either," Milburn said. "We need to find consistent team scoring and reduce our turnovers."
The one constant is Hinojosa, a 5-10 swing player and the league's most valuable player last season. A Division I prospect as a sophomore, Hinojosa leads the area's Southern Section players with averages of 23.4 points and 7.9 steals. She is sixth in rebounds at 10.3 and second in blocks at 3.0.
After playing forward last season, Hinojosa is splitting time between forward and point guard this season, a ploy to get the ball in her hands as quickly and easily as possible.
"She sometimes looks to overpass because she's such a good kid and she wants everyone to contribute," Milburn said.
"The kid she's passing to is thinking, 'If I were you, I'd shoot it' and so they're not ready for the pass and the ball's going out of bounds."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
AT A GLANCE
* THE PROVEN: The league's best player, Moorpark's Damaris Hinojosa, is already attracting heavy Division I college attention as a junior. . . . Nordhoff counters with the long-running duo of point guard Nell Becker and forward Erin Barker, both seniors. Calabasas forward Sara Hall averaged 8.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists last season. . . . Erica Vint, a 5-7 senior forward, leads Santa Paula on the rebuilding trail. . . . Malibu's top returning scorer is senior forward Jennifer Schmidt, who has improved her averages to 5.8 points and 8.5 rebounds this season.
* THE PROMISING: Malibu's Morgan Halley, a 5-11 senior post player, has been a surprise for the Sharks, earning a starting role and averaging 5.2 points, second on the team. . . . Moorpark's promising player is 6-0 center Cathleen Weaver, a sophomore. . . . Nordhoff freshman Melody Shedlosky appears to be Becker's heir at the point. She averages 3.4 assists.
* FAST FACT: With an enrollment of close to 1,800 students, Moorpark is approximately six times as big as league rival Santa Clara. The Musketeers depart for the Marmonte League next season.
* 1996-97 STANDINGS: 1. (tie) Nordhoff 23-6 overall, 9-1 in league play; Moorpark 26-4, 9-1; 3. Santa Clara 14-11, 6-4; 4. Calabasas 11-10, 4-6; 5. (tie) Malibu 4-14, 1-9; Santa Paula 4-18, 1-9.