For the first time in more than a decade, Brea Olinda won't be defending a Southern Section girls' basketball title when the playoffs tip off.
Few outside the Ladycats' gym expect the team to reach the state title game, much less win their fourth in a row.
Even those directly involved admit that going the distance could be tough.
"It's a longshot," said Jeff Sink, the Ladycat coach.
And yet, they are still Brea. They have been down this road before.
On a good night, says guard Jackie Lord, "we can beat anybody."
Top-seeded Brea is still the favorite to win the Division II-AA title, which would be its 12th in 13 seasons. Artesia, which most figure is the best Division II team in the Southern Section, plays in Division II-A. As does Redondo Beach Redondo Union, which split games with Brea this season.
It was Redondo that defeated Brea in last year's II-AA championship game, 55-46, and the team that Brea beat a week later to advance to the state final in Sacramento. Brea then beat Amador Valley, 47-34, for its third consecutive state title and eighth overall.
If Brea reaches the Southern California Regional playoffs, Hanford, from the Central Section, looms large. Hanford is ranked No. 3 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, Redondo is No. 4, Artesia is No. 9. Brea is unranked.
"With Redondo, Artesia and Hanford. . . . goodness gracious," said Foothill Coach Ty Watkins, whose team had the Ladycats on the ropes in December but fell victim to a 17-0 run in the last three minutes and lost, 63-54.
"Brea has a great shot to win the section, but for the first time in a long time, they would be an underdog going into the state playoffs, if that's possible."
Brea's shortcoming are its lack of height and its youth.
With Chelsea Trotter having graduated to Stanford, there is no more 6-foot-3 presence in the paint. Instead, there is a 6-0 freshman, Carrie Noyes. The other starter who was supposed to be a threat inside, 5-10 junior Daveri Bonnewitz, is out for the season because her knee is too weak to continue. She tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the off-season, and eschewed surgery. She played the first half of the season, but it eventually caught up to her. She will have surgery next month.
A 6-2 player off the bench, Lauren Glenn, left the team because of other commitments, among them, a modeling and acting career.
"I think we have great speed," Noyes said. "We play very well together. We're better in all areas. Where we lack height, we make up in quickness and shooting."
The Ladycats are shooting 50% from the field, including 46% from the three-point arc.
Lord has been a big reason for the success. She has shot 62.4% from the field, including 55 of 95 on three-point attempts (58%), and is averaging 16.9 points.
The Ladycats are averaging 63 points and allowing 39. Understandably, those numbers are vastly different against top-notch competition.
Against eight opponents at national tournaments in Chicago and the Bay Area, and games against Redondo, Moreno Valley and Harbor City Narbonne, the Ladycats are averaging 51.6 points and allowing 48.1. They won seven of those games, which means they can't be easily dismissed.
"It's clearly a rebuilding year," Sink said. "Despite what you want to say about Brea basketball and Southern California, there is a lot of parity and good teams.
"This is probably the least deep, shortest and in some ways the least experienced team we've fielded in 12, 15 years--certainly during my [seven-year] tenure. . . . This team deserves a lot of credit for what they've accomplished, and what they may still accomplish."
Sink agrees with Lord that Brea can play with anyone because of its quickness, defense and shooting. "We're the kind of team that's difficult to play on a given night."
Brea's 21-4 record, against a tougher schedule, is better than it was a year ago.
"By definition, with a legitimate chance to win a section title, is that a rebuilding year?" Sink said. "OK, maybe it is, and maybe we are down, but only by comparison to ourselves, not to anyone else. We are the program that has won the last three consecutive state titles. The coaching staff, the parents, the players feel good about trying to win a CIF title in a year in which we're reloading, and we'd like to make a run at the state title."
If it happens, defense must carry the day the way it has in the past. To match last season's success, Brea must do so with Noyes in the post and a succession of guards, seniors Tara Hefferly and Lord, along with juniors Kelly Agrelius, Jenny Skrifvars, sophomore Jennifer Katsuyama and freshman Lauren Pedersen.
They will have to force turnovers, like they did when they forced 20 in a win over Moreno Valley or 26 in a win over Huntington Beach--two teams that had distinct size advantages.
In fact, Brea is averaging 17.4 steals and 17.4 assists per game.
"I think we'll go into [any] game believing we can win, and that's where our tradition helps," Sink said. "You don't have to convince our kids they can win."