When Jill Trader was in fifth grade, her parents brought her to a Brea Olinda girls' basketball game. The gym was packed. Trader remembers this vividly even now, more than five years later. She remembers watching Nicole Erickson, the Ladycats' star player, remembers how poised Erickson was, remembers how everybody wanted to talk to Erickson, meet Erickson, cheer for Erickson.
"It was cool," Trader says. "I knew right then that someday I wanted to be part of this."
That's how it begins. Little girls see bigger girls who are stars, who are community heroes, who are, most of all, the best.
And Brea girls' basketball is the best. Better than our Angels and Mighty Ducks. Better than any program at our local colleges--and that includes Cal State Fullerton baseball.
No other athletic program in Orange County has been so consistently excellent. Some might point to Mater Dei football and disagree. Maybe it is unfair to make these comparisons. You could argue that high school football is a more developed game and that there are more and better athletes so there are more and better teams, which means it is much more difficult to dominate.
Tonight, Brea will play Pleasanton Amador Valley in the state Division II title game at Arco Arena in Sacramento. The Ladycats are hoping to earn a third consecutive California title. They've won a record seven state championships. Everybody in Brea knows this. Everybody in Brea knew that the Ladycats had won 11 Southern Section titles in a row too. And then everybody knew this Ladycat team couldn't quite win a 12th. It lost to Redondo Union in the section championship but then came back and beat Redondo in the Southern California Regional final.
These numbers are a testimony to Brea excellence and the reason the Ladycat program is more accomplished than any other in Orange County. It is the reason little girls in Brea dream of being on the high school team and it is the reason some girls leave the team. For excellence can be a burden.
Even through their tears, the girls knew.
Having just suffered the devastating loss to Redondo in the Southern Section championship game, feeling as if they let down their community, realizing that years from now people might remember them as the team that broke the streak, of course the girls on the Brea basketball team cried.
And while they were crying they knew there would not be sympathy. They know just about everybody else in Southern California was thrilled when they lost to Redondo. They knew they would read about it in the newspaper and on the Internet, hear it through the basketball grapevine. Ding Dong, the Brea witch is dead.
In this little corner of the world, Brea girls' basketball is the same as Notre Dame football or Kentucky basketball. The rejoicing is long and loud and sometimes mean-spirited when a dynasty team loses.
"I wish," says Chelsea Trotter, this year's star, "that people would get to know us. I hear people say that we are stuck up, snotty, arrogant. I don't know about the other teams, but this Brea team is full of really nice girls. We love to play basketball and we love to be the best but we're nice people too. Really."
It is not easy being the best. Trader, a starter until she hurt her knee, says people have been coming up to her and saying she looked relaxed ever since. There is a lot of pressure involved in being a Ladycat.
The packed gym that had so entranced Trader in the fifth grade means more than a great atmosphere for a game. It means those who pack the gym have opinions and expectations. There is pressure. When every person in your town, in your county, knows about the streaks, and when those people speak proudly of the streaks, then you have pressure.
And you have fame.
"People recognize you," Robyn Phillips, a senior guard, says. "People ask for your autograph."
With fame comes more pressure.
"If you play for Brea," says Ashley Saari, also a senior guard, "you know what the expectations are. I think it's good. I think all of us want that."
You don't just show up at high school one day and become a Ladycat.
In Brea, there are teams in a police league for third- and fourth-graders. The coaches of these teams know what kind of style Jeff Sink, the head coach at Brea, likes to play. In junior high you can play for the Polcats and learn more of the Brea system. By the time they arrive at the high school, basketball team hopefuls know the fundamentals, know how to pass and cut, how to get in position for a rebound, how to shoot a free throw, how to use a screen.
More and more programs are developing this same model. If success breeds success, success also breeds imitation. And imitation is what is making it more difficult for Brea to stay Brea. There are more good players around the county and more coaches and high school administrators who want their teams to be as good as Brea's. There are now AAU summer teams for girls. Now, instead of all the Brea girls playing on one team together all summer, some of them split up.