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Girls' Basketball

Formula Changes at Ventura

December 24, 2003|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Caitlin O'Neill says it takes a little getting used to.

The Ventura High junior had known nothing except facing pressure defenses, pushing the ball up the floor and, if there's no layup, firing away from long range.

The Cougars finished 29-3 and won the Southern Section Division II-AA title her freshman year and were 19-11 last season, advancing to the division quarterfinals -- all by living off the three-point shot.

But this fall, Kali Bennett, a 6-foot-5 freshman, showed up on campus.

"It's fun because it's different, but I kind of miss the old ways where you just screen and shoot," O'Neill said. "We've never had to pass it into the post, and we've had to learn how to do that. It's been difficult, but we're improving and working hard on that. It's nice having a rebounder in there."

Ventura used to run and gun because it had no size. Now, Coach Ann Larson has changed the style to accommodate Bennett, who is averaging 12.4 points and 8.3 rebounds. She is backed up by Caitlin Kearns, a sophomore, who is 6-3. The post game isn't leaving anytime soon.

"It's kind of weird," Bennett said. "I've seen Ventura play their game in the past; they were three-point oriented teams with good guards. It's awkward to know that plays are just for you. I don't want to be a ball hog. At first it was kind of overwhelming."

All of which makes players such as O'Neill laugh.

"There's certain moments when you have to remind yourself she is only 14 and still learning what varsity basketball is all about," O'Neill said.

Ventura is ranked No. 9 by The Times and is off to an 11-0 start, with victories over Palmdale, Newhall Hart and North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake. Bennett had 18 points against Harvard-Westlake on Saturday as Ventura won, 51-46, coming from behind after trailing by as many as 11 points.

The cornerstones of this season's team are O'Neill, who has 17 three-point baskets and is averaging 11.9 points, and senior Meggie Wagner, who has 14 threes and is averaging 10.4.

"They're so wily," Larson said.

O'Neill and Wagner have plenty to work with, including senior forward Kaytlin O'Dell (6-0), senior point guard Carley Coulter and freshman guard Reilly Wagner, Meggie's sister.

"I think talent-wise we're better than two years ago," Larson said. "Two years ago, we went on an incredible run and had perfect chemistry to do what we needed to do to win. Player for player, we probably have more basketball talent this year. But by having been successful two years ago, we're not going to sneak up on anybody."

*

One team that didn't do as well as it hoped at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., was No. 16 Santa Ana Mater Dei. Christina Lopez dislocated her shoulder in a first-round victory over Bakersfield Stockdale, and two losses by a combined three points followed.

"She's our best player right now," said Coach Geri Campeau, adding that the best-case scenario is for Lopez to return Monday for the third-round game of the Orange County Championships.

*

Among the scenarios at the Chino Hills Ayala Best of the West tournament is a possible second-round meeting of Latara Darrett of Chino Don Lugo and her former team, Ayala, on Saturday, if both teams win -- or lose -- their first-round games Friday.

Darrett, a sophomore, transferred this season. Mel Sims, who coached Darrett last season, is happy to play his former player, who is now at the school previously attended by Connecticut star Diana Taurasi.

"She presents a lot of problems, and I thought it would be nice to play her if we get that far," Sims said. "I enjoyed playing against Taurasi. She beat us four times, but you learn how to play.

"Latara's very good. I would imagine she'll be a crowd draw, and there will be a lot of conversation about it. It's a natural game, and we'd like to be a party to that. Hopefully, a good party."

*

Several teams have had notable starts this season, and the Ayala tournament provides an ideal opportunity to get some signature victories.

Among those looking to make noise: Los Angeles (10-1), which opens against No. 17 Pasadena Muir; Long Beach Millikan (5-2), which took Concord Carondolet to overtime before losing, 70-61, at the Nike Tournament of Champions, will open against No. 18 Torrance Bishop Montgomery, and Temecula Valley (7-1), led by Jessie Thompson, hopes to face Etiwanda in the second round and probably No. 13 Riverside North in the quarterfinals.

*

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FAST BREAK

FEATS

* Lynwood didn't play in the National division at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., but it continued to get outstanding performances from Sade Wiley-Gatewood in its title run, including 13 points, 10 rebounds, 16 assists and four steals in a 60-51 victory over Tucson Salpointe, the state's second-ranked team, in the White division championship on Saturday.

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