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The Case for the Defense

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Ask the question, and the same answer keeps popping up. Veronica Johns-Richardson is the first name in defense in Orange County.

Lightning quick reflexes and relentless pursuit have been her trademarks during her first three seasons at Troy High.

But when it comes to movers and shakers on defense, Johns-Richardson isn't alone.

Edison's Bianca Ziemann and Brea Olinda's Jennifer Katsuyama earn high praise for their quickness. El Toro's 6-foot-3 Carrie Twaddell blocks shots and alters others. Foothill's Kristen Mann's versatility and help on defense are invaluable.

"To be a good defender, you have to take a lot of pride because there's not a lot of glory in it," said Capistrano Valley's Pete Belanto, coach of Jessica Voisard, a 5-11 sophomore who blocked 66 shots in 29 games last season. "You don't have to be a great athlete or have great ability, but with great desire, you can become a pretty good defender."

Mary Anderson was that player for Capistrano Valley in 1998-99. After she fouled out of a playoff game against El Toro, the county's leading scorer, Giuliana Mendiola, scored nine points in the final minute to force overtime, and El Toro went on to win in double overtime, 78-68--all because Anderson was no longer attached to Mendiola's hip.

"I don't think you can be scared and be a good defensive player," said Brea's Jackie Lord, a guard who has signed with California. "Good defense is all about being smart and being confident. You know you can stop this person and you know that you won't let them score on you. Half of good defense is the mental battle. You have to have a lot of heart to step up and guard Diana Taurasi."

Taurasi was last season's state player of the year for Chino Don Lugo, and one of Hardeman's victims in the playoffs when she shut down three of the section's top players in consecutive games. Hardeman, whose 12.4-point scoring average came almost exclusively from her defense, had 160 steals--two fewer than Johns-Richardson--in helping Troy reach the section final.

"She was not tremendously gifted as far as athleticism," Belanto said of Hardeman, "but she worked hard, got through screens, and recognized that it was important that Troy have someone to stop the other team's best player."

Brea may outscore Orange League opponents by 80 points, but the Ladycats win in the section and state playoffs because of their defense, which is anchored by excellent individual defenders such as Lord and Katsuyama.

"I love Katsuyama," said Kevin Kiernan, coach of top-ranked Troy. "She's a very good individual defender on the perimeter, and it's not easy to break her down; there's not too many people [Johns-Richardson] has trouble breaking down. Having a good guard like Katsuyama will help Lord; it will let her concentrate more on offense. That's the advantage we had last year. Hardeman would guard the best player, and that made it easier on [Johns-Richardson]."

Johns-Richardson, who shot 51% from the three-point arc and signed with Colorado, won't have that luxury this season. "She'll have to guard [Sonora's Brandi] Davis and Lord, and will have to be one of the best defensive players in the county if we're going to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Kiernan said.

A state title is the ultimate goal. Even though Davis, Lord and several other players mention Johns-Richardson first among the county's top defensive players, Kiernan says he has a 6-0 post player who is a real gem.

"Our best defender is Kianey Givens-Davis," he said. "She can guard people on the post even though she's a bit undersized, and she's quick enough to guard people on the perimeter. That's what she concentrates on. She doesn't need 10 to 15 shots a game. She only wants to play defense and rebound. She's a great role player."

Another player who can be just as tough in the post is Foothill's Mann, a smooth, 6-2 forward bound for UC Santa Barbara. Mann is just as comfortable shutting down a guard as she is a center or forward.

"I rest on offense," said Mann, who averaged 19.9 points and 9.9 rebounds last season. "I love blocking shots--that's the most fun part of the game. It's a really good feeling playing great defense and having the shot clock run out. Or having one of your teammates take a charge. That totally pumps you up."

And the advantage of such hard work on defense?

"If they don't score," Mann said, "they don't win."

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