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NICK AGRO , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Brea Olinda freshman Tyiona Watkins, right, chases the ball while followed by Brea Olina senior Shaylissa Jarrett during the CIF Southern California Division III Regional final against El Dorado.

Brea Olinda benefits from fresh approach

STAFF WRITER

BREA – The "Ghosts of the Alumni" overlook the basketball courts inside Brea Olinda’s on-campus gymnasium, serving as constant reminder of where the girls basketball program has been, as well as where it should strive to be.

Those ghosts are embodied in the form of nine state championship banners, hanging from the walls, filled with the names of local legends and timeless champions.

The Ladycats hung their first standard in 1989 and draped their latest in 2009, the not-so-distant past for everyone except those who willbe playing for No. 10 on Friday.

“It’s really unbelievable how this small team with seven of us freshman have made it this far our first year,” Brea freshman forward Tyiona Watkins said. “I’m really excited for (today) and the years to come.”

Exactly half of Brea Olinda’s roster is made up of ninth graders, as in 14- and 15-year-old, never-played-varsity-ball-until this-year freshmen. In fact, 11 of the Ladycats’ 14 players are underclassmen, making the team’s trio of seniors the vast minority.

What they lack in age and total number of driver licenses, they more than make up for in skill and budding potential. Having already surpassed the expectations of their veteran coach, the Ladycats will have an opportunity to bring home a record 10th CIF State title when they play Bishop O’Dowd in the Division III championship game at 2 p.m. Friday at Haas Pavilion on the Cal campus.

“We definitely exceeded expectations by a full year,” admitted Brea coach Jeff Sink, who’s in search for his fifth state crown as head coach. “Last Saturday night against El Dorado (in the regional championship game), we started three freshmen. We’ve got very good older kids in Reili (Richardson), Shay (Jarrett) and Sierra (Bononi). They’re all capable players. But I think the freshman came into a dream situation. We didn’t have a lot of depth, and I decided early on they were going to get a lot of minutes right away.”

When Brea captured its last state title in 2009, Watkins was an 8-year-old third grader, way more concerned with recess than the prospect of high school.

Upon arriving on campus for her first practice last summer, basketball was the least of Watkins’ concerns.

“I was kind of scared because I didn’t know if people were going to like me,” she said, expressing the fear of any incoming freshman. “But then coming into practice, we started building relationships with each other right away. We’ve all gotten real close.”

Despite being one of the few veterans on the team, and one of the two senior starters, Bononi didn’t know half her new teammates upon walking into gym that first day. What she did recognize was their talent.

“When we rolled out the ball that first practice, they were running with us, they were picking up the plays like this,” she said, snapping her fingers. “It was like, ‘Oh, OK. So we actually have some ballers in here.’”

Watkins and fellow freshman point guard Janei Ruby-Fuamatu quickly worked their way into in the starting five, while Krislyn Marsh, Iyree Jarrett and Terree Johnson all became three of Sink’s most consistent players off bench, despite having absolutely zero high school playing experience.

Because of their contributions, the Ladycats were victors of the Crestivew League title, advanced to the second round of the CIF-SS Open Division playoffs, and now have a shot at a state championship.

“They play major minutes in huge games for us,” Bononi added. “It’s almost like the Fab Five, back to the Michigan days. Everyone brings it.”

With Richardson – a junior – leading the team in scoring at 17.4 point per game, Watkins has become the team’s No. 2 option, averaging close to 14 an outing. With Jarrett hobbled by a high ankle sprain in last week’s Regional final, Watkins scored a game-high 22 points and guided Brea back from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to qualify for today’s finale up north.

“The Ladycats have always been a fourth-quarter team,” said assistant coach Amanda Rangel, a member of the 1998 state championship team. “We’ve always come back. But I still don’t think (the freshmen) quite comprehend it all. This is such a huge platform.”

As Sink has said repeatedly in the past several weeks, sometimes youngsters have a tendency to play over their heads because they don’t understand the magnitude of the situation.

That very well could be true. But what if Brea’s crop of underclassmen really is this good?

Whether they win or not, one thing’s for certain – the rebirth of the Ladycat dynasty is on the horizon.

Contact the writer: kconnolly@ocregister.com


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