As an assistant at Brea Olinda for five seasons, Tony Matson was part of a girls' basketball program that was used to winning Southern Section titles, used to performing in the spotlight and used to being the target on everybody's schedule.
As coach at Orange Lutheran, Matson is on the other end of that spectrum.
"It's refreshing to see," said Matson, who has a record of 69-32 in his fourth season at Lutheran. "[My players] have no savvy like the Brea kids, who have reporters at every game. They're giddy. They're like a deer in the headlights -- they don't know how to react." Last week, Lutheran (15-6) was ranked No. 25 by The Times. A week earlier, it had been ranked No. 10 in Orange County by another paper. It marked the first time the girls' basketball program had ever received such recognition.
"It was the best feeling," senior Ashley Amaral said.
Added junior Melissa Yunghans: "It was pretty much a scream-fest when we found out." Despite a 41-37 loss to Orange El Modena on Saturday that resulted in the Lancers' stay in the top 25 being a short-lived one -- Matson said his team got complacent and never fully understood the concept of being a predator instead of the prey -- Lutheran is still a team on the rise.
Without a standout player on offense, Lutheran has succeeded with its defense.
In three of its losses, the winning team scored 41 points or less: a 41-39 overtime loss to Placentia El Dorado without two starters, who were ill; a 40-38 loss to No. 14 Santa Margarita after shooting 19% from the field; and the loss to El Modena, after again shooting 19%.
Two other losses came in overtime, 51-50 to No. 10 Fullerton Troy and 57-52 to No. 16 Fullerton Rosary. The Lancers also lost to Ossining (N.Y.), 64-57, in a December tournament in New Jersey.
"We're playing these games because at playoff time we want to be able to draw off that experience," Matson said. "We'll play anybody."
Last season, Lutheran lost in the Southern Section Division IV-AA semifinals to eventual state finalist Playa del Rey St. Bernard.
"We're better this year than last year," Matson said, "and I think we're going to be better next year."
During crunch time in its biggest games, the Lancers usually have Amaral, Yunghans and three sophomores on the court.
Yunghans, a 6-foot forward, is averaging 16.1 points and 9.8 rebounds, and her strength and consistency have been invaluable. Amaral, a guard, is averaging 9.8 points.
Guards Kristen Terpstra and Alyssa Wandrey, and 6-2 forward Lindsay Allen, are each averaging between six and nine points.
"When we got ranked," Matson said, "I told them, 'Congratulations, now you're a target.' "
After losing Saturday, it's a concept the Lancers should understand.
Lakewood Artesia has taken its lumps this season, and the Pioneers' 65-52 loss to Lynwood on Saturday seems to be another bruise on their 12-8 record.
But Artesia outscored Lynwood in the second half by one point, and center Cacie Pope scored 21 of her 25 points in the second half despite being in foul trouble.
"I think we're starting to play to our potential," Coach Scott Roczey said. "Playing all the tough games in [nonleague] is starting to pay off."
The Pioneers made an impression on Lynwood Coach Ellis Barfield, who told a local paper afterward that he believed Artesia would win another section title.
Teams began playing in early December, but it wasn't until Jan. 14 that Rolling Hills Prep (3-1) finally got underway.
The team had 10 players last season, when it won the Division V-AA title, but four graduated, including Charmaine Jones, now playing point guard at Washington State.
Two others, senior Crystal Chappell and junior Whitney King, decided not to play this season to focus on academics, Athletic Director Brian Knigin said. Chappell has been accepted to Purdue, and King has her sights on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford.
"By no means is the [basketball] program dead," Knigin said. "We have seven players on the varsity, and we'll be competitive within the division.
"Early on, [Coach Joe Jackson] felt we needed practice time with this group and needed time to get organized. With no margin for injury, we concerned ourselves with getting ready for [Harbor] league."
The Huskies have won behind the play of junior center Kristi Terrell, who is averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds, and sophomore forward Jasmine Watts, who is averaging 11 points and eight rebounds.