Photocap = Jasmine Arjasbi (center) reacts as Brea's Chelsea Trotter (#00) grabs a rebound. Ofa Tulikihihifo (left) and Jackie Packard look on. Photo by John Tawa.

Champs!

The Redondo girls' basketball team caps an unforgettable year with an historic win in Friday's CIF championship game

by John Tawa

 

Jasmine Arjasbi (center) reacts as Brea's Chelsea Trotter (#00) grabs a rebound. Ofa Tulikihihifo (left) and Jackie Packard look on. Photo by John Tawa.

"Working will win. Wishing, watching won't."

Friday night, the Redondo girls' basketball team borrowed that quote from Ofa Tulikihihifo's player profile in their 1999-2000 program and adopted it for themselves. Working hard and together for 32 minutes, the Sea Hawks knocked off 11-time defending CIF champion Brea Olinda 55-46 to win their first ever Southern Section title at the Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State.

Most people would call it an upset. The top-seeded Ladycats entered the game on a 17-game winning streak and were two-time defending state champions. In a preseason tournament in December, they rolled Redondo by 30 points. Before meeting the Sea Hawks, they'd wiped out their playoff opponents by an average of 34.5 points per game. Their best player, Stanford-bound Chelsea Trotter, was the 1999 Orange County Player of the Year, averaging more than 21 points and 10 rebounds per game.

"They're the Rome of girls basketball," said Redondo head coach Marcelo Enriquez.

The Sea Hawks, by contrast, came to the final without much of a girls' basketball tradition. Winning their only league title five years ago, Redondo finished 18-9 last year, taking second place in the highly competitive Bay League before losing in the first round of the playoffs to Paso Robles.

The third-seeded Sea Hawks, however, came into the final as a hot basketball team. The current Bay League champs (26-5) had won 19 of their last 20 games, most in dominating fashion. A wire-to-wire win over second seeded Foothill in the semifinal last Wednesday had the team convinced they could beat Brea.

"At the start of the season, we wrote down goals of winning the Bay League, making the semifinals of our division and winning at least 20 games," Enriquez explained. "We accomplished all of those."

"Before the playoffs started, we changed our playoff goal to make it to the final," he continued. "And once we got there, everyone felt pretty confident that we could win, that we had improved by more than 30 points."

"We had so much faith in ourselves," added junior forward Jackie Packard. "We knew that we could beat anybody because our game was only going up. We kept getting better and better all through the playoffs."

[Subhead bold] = Hire me

Enriquez had big plans for his Sea Hawks when he was hired as the head coach in 1995. After three years as an assistant coach at Bishop Montgomery and two years at Peninsula, the Redondo Beach resident and physical education teacher at Dana Middle School in San Pedro was ready for the challenge of a head coaching position.

"I said if you hire me, I'm not going to come here and just roll out the basketball," he explained. "I'm looking to win league titles, CIF titles and, if we're fortunate enough, state titles. When they looked at me, they laughed, but I was dead serious when I said that."

With Enriquez at the helm, Redondo finished in fourth place in the Ocean League in his first year. Two third-place league finishes and last year's second-place campaign followed. The program definitely was on the rise.

That's what made last year's first-round playoff loss at Paso Robles so difficult. Enriquez did not make the trip with his team. Instead, he stayed home to be with wife Irma for the birth of their son Marcelo, Jr.

"Not being there last year tore me up inside," he said. "But I definitely wasn't going to miss the birth of my son."

During Friday's win over Brea, the pinnacle of Enriquez' coaching career, his wife and two small children were looking on proudly. So too were the Redondo administrators Enriquez had convinced to hire him five years before.

[italics] = The game started late Friday night, but that didn't stop the large Redondo crowd from cheering their Sea Hawks wildly. And they didn't have to wait long for that first opportunity. On Redondo's opening possession against tight man-to-man defense, Packard glimpsed senior point guard Stephanie Wong alone at the three-point line. Wong's high-arching shot found the bottom of the net. The Redondo crowd celebrated the Hawks' 3-0 lead.

More cheers came two minutes later when Tulikihihifo snared a rebound and went the length of the court for a lay-up and foul. When she hit the free throw, the Hawks led 6-1. The Ladycats fought back to tie the game at 10, but Redondo scored two straight baskets. First, freshman guard Ashley Wilson broke a double team and passed to Packard for an open five-footer. Then Wong made a sweet steal and pass to Wilson for a tough runner from close range.

Despite hard-nosed defense by Redondo, Brea was able to run off the quarter's last four points. Trotter showed her talent, hitting a tough baseline jumper with Jasmine Arjasbi in her face. Jackie Lord converted a Redondo turnover into a lay-up to knot the score at 14 apiece after one quarter.

[Subhead bold] = Hard work pays off

All year long, the Sea Hawks achieved success by constantly outworking their opponents. That's an unusual trait for a team so young. Only one senior and two juniors are on the roster. Three sophomores and four freshmen round out the squad. Enriquez called them the most unselfish and hardest working girls he's ever had in his coaching career.

When it comes to working hard, Arjasbi is at the top of the list. The 5-foot-10 junior forward's motto is "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." She lives that motto every second on the floor. And on the floor is where Arjasbi often finds herself, either diving for loose balls, tying somebody up or taking charges.

Against the 6-foot-3 Trotter Friday, Arjasbi demonstrated the value of defense. Trotter scored 11 points in the first half, but managed only three points in the second half as Arjasbi and Danny Payne put the clamps on her.

[Subhead bold] = Returning from injury

Packard remembers the early December night when her Sea Hawks first faced off against Brea Olinda like it was yesterday. Late in the third quarter of Redondo's frustrating loss, the team's second leading scorer tore ligaments in her ankle that threatened to derail her season.

"I came off a screen and was driving to the basket," Packard explained. "As I came up to shoot, Chelsea [Trotter] kind of pushed me down and I landed on it."

Packard, who had a history of ankle sprains, didn't know how badly she was hurt.

"I was expecting more of a sprain, but I tore ligaments and they had to put a cast on," she said. "I didn't get to play in some of the bigger preseason tournaments."

Packard didn't return from the injury until Jan. 5, just in time to help the Hawks defeat Peninsula 44-30, ending the Panthers' 94-game Bay League winning streak.

Against Brea Friday, Packard made the Ladycats suffer for the injury they inflicted upon her three months earlier. She led Redondo with 14 points, and added four assists, three rebounds and a steal.

"I thought they wouldn't think I'd be a factor, because I really wasn't a factor in that game," she said. "It felt so good to show them."

[italics] = The second quarter belonged to freshman Wilson. She made a driving basket to put Redondo ahead 16-14 and then watched as the Ladycats scored four straight points to take their first lead of the game, 18-16. Undeterred, Wilson came right back, dribbling through a heavy-footed Brea defense for a difficult lay-up to tie the score.

After a Lord lay-up gave Brea the lead again, Packard immediately hit a six-footer on a nice pass from Wilson to knot the score again.

Tied at 20, Wilson stunned Brea with a terrific baseline drive and hoop plus a foul. She completed the three-point play and Redondo had a 23-20 lead with just over three minutes left in the half.

"I just knew what had to be done," Wilson said. "Marcelo said, 'Guards you have to drive.' I knew it would spark our team. I just worked on instincts."

Redondo would not trail again.

Packard hit a running 10-footer in the lane and Payne scored on a nice dish from Jennifer Owens to extend Redondo's lead to 27-23 at halftime.

[subhead bold] = The freshmen

It's rare when four freshmen make a high school varsity team, but Redondo's freshmen are uncommon. Wilson, Payne, Allison Bretana and Krisztina Fuleki have been honing their skills for the past two years, playing together for the Beach Cities club team. Wilson is a hard-nosed slasher and defensive stopper, Payne a tall, graceful player with unlimited potential. Bretana is a true point guard with great ball handling skills and good court vision. Fuleki is a scorer. Together, the four spell trouble for any opponent.

"Ever since they were in the seventh and eighth grade, we've been waiting to get them on our team," Packard said.

Against Brea and throughout the year, the freshmen played with the poise of seniors.

"I felt they'd be able to give us lots of contributions right away," Enriquez said. "But to see them perform in a clutch situation like they did was above and beyond the call of duty.

Payne played big in the middle against the Ladycats, with six points and six rebounds. Bretana and Fuleki saw only limited action, but were sparks for the team throughout the year. Then there was Wilson, who stepped up with nine big points and two assists in the first half against Brea.

"Wilson, she wasn't even nervous," Enriquez said. "She was like a kid going to Disneyland for the first time. She just wanted to get out there and do what she could to help her teammates out."

[italics] = Redondo started out hot in the third quarter. A Wilson drive and dish to Wong for a 20-footer gave the Hawks a 29-23 lead. Two steals by Arjasbi in the first two minutes signaled to her teammates that there would be no letdown on this night.

The Sea Hawks scored the quarter's first seven points, capped by a three-point play from Tulikihihifo after a nice inbounds pass from Owens, who had two assists and two steals in the quarter.

Another basket by Tulikihihifo gave Redondo a 38-27 lead with less than a minute to go in the third. But Brea scored the last five points to close the gap to 38-32 Hawks with one quarter remaining.

[subhead bold] = Ofa and Owens

Tulikihihifo and Owens are dynamic sophomores, with athletic gifts that make your jaw drop and a determination to play hard every game not found in many athletes. Tulikihihifo was the team's scoring and rebounding leader. Owens was tops in assists and steals. Together, they formed a tandem that could knock out most opponents.

Recently, however, they've been the ones taking the knocks rather than dishing them out. Tulikihihifo played the last two games in a weakened condition, suffering from strep throat. Owens got slammed into the wall on a hard foul late in the game against Foothill, severely straining her back.

But against Brea, they both fought through their afflictions like champions. Tulikihihifo had 12 points, six rebounds and three steals and was named Player of the Game. Owens added four points, three assists, three steals and two rebounds and was a huge presence in the second half when the team needed her most.

"I can't feel my sickness that much anymore," said a happy Tulikihihifo after the game.

"Those kids are going on guts and desire right now," added Enriquez. "They're just players. When it's game time, they come to play."

[italics] = Redondo opened the scoring in the fourth quarter, just like it had the first three quarters. Packard rebounded a missed three-pointer and went coast to coast to give the Hawks an eight point lead again.

But Brea didn't win 11 straight titles by giving up when faced with adversity. A three-pointer by Tara Hefferly, a jumper by Robyn Phillips and a Lord lay-up closed the gap to one, 40-39, with 4:47 left in the game.

The Sea Hawks did not fold. Payne hit two clutch free throws after being fouled. Owens then rebounded a Packard miss in transition and stuck it back in. The lead was five. A Wong lay-up from Tulikihihifo after a steal extended the lead to seven with less than three minutes remaining.

Brea whittled Redondo's lead to four before Packard stepped up. With the shot clock running out, she took a feed from Arjasbi and sliced through the lane for a lay-in with 1:25 left. Coast-to-coast drives from Tulikihihifo and Owens padded Redondo's lead to 10 with under a minute left. The Hawks were going to win.

Two lay-ups by Brea offset three free throws by Wong. When the final horn sounded, Redondo had the 55-46 win and its first-ever section title.

The girls rushed the floor and crumpled in a heap at mid-court. The coaches embraced one another. Joyous shouts and high fives reigned in the stands.

[subhead bold] = The senior

Standing near the pandemonium, Wong observed the scene and smiled. The team's captain, long distance specialist and only senior, she chose to stay on the edge of the celebration.

"I have mixed emotions," she said. "I'm happy we won, but this is my senior year. It's my only year to have this feeling. The freshmen get three more years."

What Wong failed to note was that she was a prime reason the Hawks got to experience the feeling even once. In the semifinals against Foothill, the four-year varsity player scored 24 points, including huge three pointers early and key free throws late. Against Brea, she had 10 points, two assists and two steals. And her triple in the opening moments set the tone for the entire game.

"When I hit it, I was thinking this is going to be a good game," Wong said. "I know we're going to win."

[subhead bold] = A long time coming

In the stands, longtime Redondo coach and teacher Jim Ball smiled. Since his girls won a CIF title in tennis 20 years ago, he's watched very good Redondo teams get close, but fall just short of another championship in any team sport. There was the boys' volleyball team last year and boys' basketball the year before. The girls' volleyball team made the finals in 1980 and girls' softball reached that level in 1994.

"The frustration is that Redondo's always been very good at athletics across the board," Ball said. "But we couldn't win the final championship game, which shows how hard it is to win a championship game."

The failure of other teams to win a banner had become a standing joke among coaches.

"I'm proud to have won a championship, but I kept saying I needed some company," Ball said. "We've got the only banner in the last 50 years. It was a real pleasure to be there with Marcelo and see him fulfill that dream."

"All the credit goes to the girls," Enriquez said. "I felt from the beginning that we had the most cohesive group of girls we've ever had as far as coaching goes. These girls are family. They're all like sisters and it shows out there on the court."

"I thought we were going to win CIF from the beginning," Owens confessed. "This was our year. Brea, even though we lost to them by 30, we're a different team now. We're just so in synch."

"I'm really grateful but I'm not satisfied," added Tulikihihifo. "It's always going to be remembered though."

[subhead bold] = Answered prayers

The win probably meant the most to sophomore forward Krista Areyan. Areyan played sparingly after turning an ankle three weeks ago, but her spiritual presence was immense. Last year, Areyan lost her father Lou, a prominent Redondo youth league coach, at the age of 36. She celebrated the win over Brea tearfully with her mother and two brothers before joining her teammates.

"I'm feeling excitement, sadness and happiness," she explained. "I wish my dad was here, but I know he was looking from above. I kept talking to him and he answered my prayers."

"This is all I wanted, this is all I've been talking to him about and he answered my prayers." ER