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BRIAN WHITEHEAD, STAFF
Orangewood Academy senior guards Elizabeth Garcia, left, and Yvonne Ornelas are returning letter winners from the 2014-15 CIF-SS champion Division 5AA Spartans. "My freshman year," Ornelas said, "I didn't even know what CIF was, what it meant to the seniors. Now, I want to get as far as we possibly can."

Ornelas, Garcia at the heart of Orangewood's success

STAFF WRITER

Yvonne Ornelas and Elizabeth Garcia go way back.

Sisters in hoops since grade school, their bond transcends basketball at this point, but it is on the court where their friendship emits its most energy.

You won’t find one without the other in the gym, both girls starting the past four years for longtime Orangewood Academy coach Leslie Aragon.

Seniors now, Ornelas and Garcia plan on leaving the program in a better place than where it was when they joined it.

“Nostalgia is already kicking in with them,” Aragon said. “Everything we do, we’re doing it with them for the last time.”

Ornelas and Garcia began hooping for the same Santa Ana recreational team in third grade.

A point guard in size and in personality, Ornelas joined the local club team first. Her travel coach later offered Garcia, a stellar defensive player, a spot.

Both girls said growing up they used basketball as an escape. If something wasn’t right at home or in school, they played.

Trust was built on hardwood, and together, they enrolled at Orangewood prior to the 2012-13 school year.

The Spartans, meanwhile, had just won a record 26 games and the 2011-12 CIF-SS Division 6 title. Aragon had himself a budding prize hoops program.

Ornelas and Garcia, he said, arrived at just the right time.

“It’s family here,” Garcia said. “It’s like a second home.”

***

If teammates Jacqueline Saucedo and Estefania Giner are Orangewood’s muscle, Ornelas and Garcia are its heart.

Neither girl intimidates other players physically, but at their height, both pack a punch. Despite standing 5-foot-3, Ornelas is fearless with the ball, and Garcia, at 5-foot-5, defends elite scorers pushing 6-feet. Their height would be their undoing if they didn’t work harder than everyone else.

Garcia, Aragon said, may very well be the best one-on-one defender in Orange County. Ornelas, perhaps its craftiest ball-handler.

“Some people think I treat them differently,” Aragon said. “That I have favorites. They’ll say, 'Oh, she’s your favorite. You don’t treat them the same as everyone else.' The truth is, I don’t treat them the same as other girls, you know? That’s just trust. They know what I want, and I know I’ll get what I want from them.

“They lead by example by always being here, they’re never late, and they’re always first in drills,” he continued. “If that’s favoring, then yes, I favor them.”

Aragon compares Ornelas favorably to former Spartans point guard Jareni Nunez, the 2012 Division 6 Player of the Year.

Nunez, too, lettered four years at Orangewood, winning 87 career games while taking an above-average girls program and turning it into the remote Orange County basketball factory it is now. Nunez commanded respect, Aragon said, and always demanded her teammates’ best effort. And while she graduated a year before Ornelas arrived, Aragon said Orangewood’s backcourt bellwethers are one in the same.

“When Jerani left, I needed a point guard,” Aragon continued. “And when Yvonne came, this player, who she is today, that’s what I envisioned. If Elizabeth is the defensive stopper, then Yvonne is the calming influence.”

Ornelas started for the 2013 Spartans and came up fast.

She finished second to senior Raquel Spencer in scoring, but Orangewood lost to Whitney in the second round of the Division 4A playoffs. Ornelas and Garcia then led the team in scoring as sophomores.

Orangewood in 2014 lost to Ribet Academy, 47-27, in the Division 5A title game, but returned its third-year backcourt the following winter and received frontcourt help in the form of the 6-foot Saucedo and the 5-foot-10 Giner. Last year’s Spartans, young as they were, became a staple atop the weekly Division 5AA poll.

Aragon’s freshmen towers took the scoring burden off Ornelas and Garcia, allowing the savvy veterans to exert energy elsewhere.

“I know that if I make a 3, it’ll put one look on Leslie’s face,” Ornelas said. “But I also know that if I get on the ground, if I dive for a loose ball or make a hustle play, it’ll draw a completely different reaction. I like to do those things that excite him. Everyone on this team can shoot, we’re all shooters, but not many people get on the ground.”

Orangewood won 29 games last season and beat Ribet, 51-46, in the teams’ Division 5AA championship game rematch.

This summer, the program leaped to Division 1AA, an unprecedented ascent. The Spartans now play in the same division as Orange County monoliths Mater Dei and Troy, whose respective enrollments lap that of the Garden Grove private school.

“There’s a stigma, I think, with winning a Division 5, a Division 6 championship,” said Aragon, who returned his starting five, including Saucedo and Giner, the 2014-15 Division 5AA players of the year. “It’s: ‘OK, you won it there, now what can you do over here?’ But the fire is there. The girls understand that we want to build this program.”

Ornelas, in her final year, finds herself in rarefied air.

She already is Orangewood’s winningest player, but another season like last, and she’ll join the sorority of former county guards to win 100 career games.

But more so than her record number of wins, Aragon said Ornelas’ legacy will live through mentee Wendy Duran, the heir to Orangewood’s point guard throne.

“The position I play, you need to tell people what to do,” Ornelas said. “When I got here, I never felt comfortable bossing anyone around because I was younger than everyone else, and who’s going to listen to the freshman? Now, someone has to be the voice. The young players, they don’t know if what they’re doing is right. Everyone needs someone.

“That’s the leader I try to be.”

Contact the writer: 714-704-3790 or bwhitehead@ocregister.com


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