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ALL-COUNTY GIRLS' BASKETBALL TEAM | COACH OF THE YEAR

Kiernan Boosts Troy to Top Ranks

March 28, 2000|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The foundation for Troy High's success this season in girls' basketball was laid during a loss last season.

After suffering the embarrassment of a second-round defeat in the Southern Section playoffs--the team's only loss in 1998-99--Coach Kevin Kiernan did exactly what was necessary to toughen up his team.

He challenged his players' character and made them decide what they wanted to be, league champions or section champions. Three-hour practices became more intense than games, and Kiernan coached defense like it was the only thing that mattered.

His path took Troy to the top of the Orange County rankings, a position it is likely to hold again in December, when the team returns nearly intact.

But this season, Troy was so good that Kiernan earned recognition as The Times' Orange County Girls' Coach of the Year.

No longer a perennial Freeway League champion that went a quick one-and-out in the playoffs, Troy reached the final in the Southern Section's toughest division, I-A. The Warriors were seeded No. 2 and, true to form, did exactly what they were supposed to do. They didn't win the title, but they also had only one senior in their starting lineup. If ever a team could say, "Maybe next year. . . ."

Kiernan wasn't the only coach who made a difference in 1999-2000:

* Elbert Davis turned around the program at Corona del Mar and hopes to do next year what Kiernan did this season: Improve the quality of opponents and bring credibility to a lofty record.

* Jim Martin coached a .500 Laguna Hills team to two huge upsets in Division II-A to win Orange County's only section title.

* Garth Anderson directed Pacifica to the II-A final, the first time the Mariners played more than two playoff games in a season.

But Kiernan pieced together the plan for remarkable success. The Warriors finished 27-5, but only because they lost their last two games, to Riverside North in the section final and then to Harbor City Narbonne in the first round of the Southern California playoffs.

Troy won 20 games in a row before the loss to North, and avenged early-season losses to San Clemente, in which all five starters fouled out, and to Mater Dei. There were other impressive victories, including over Rosary, Corona Centennial, Moreno Valley, Edison (twice) and Chino Don Lugo.

The seeds of the Warriors' success, though, were planted in the playoff loss last season to San Clemente--a team they had beaten by 17 points two months earlier. Kiernan worried that his players were "soft" and told them so.

In the ensuing months, he changed their attitude and approach to the game. They toughened up physically and mentally, and over a four-day period in December, they won the Orange County Championship at Edison High--maybe the most intense four-day tournament in county history.

Kiernan committed to playing a tougher schedule this season. After going 27-1 last season, he didn't want his team to go into the playoffs again without being battle-tested. A soft schedule was a thing of the past.

Over the course of the season, he saw so much improvement that he became almost obsessed with the notion. "I'd like to play Brea next season," he said about five weeks ago. "Heck, I'd like to play Narbonne next year."

That's the kind of company Troy can keep these days, thanks to its defense. The Warriors had the county's most suffocating full-court press, and defense doesn't teach itself. Kiernan made sure his players were in shape, able to keep the pressure on for four quarters, and that the reserves were as effective as the starters. Everyone bought into the idea that the best offense was one that scored off its defense.

Their top six players shot 53.1% from the field, largely because layups are high-percentage shots. But the key was a willingness to work hard for six months to get those layups.

Players ultimately win games, but it's important that the coaches first win over the players.

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