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Mater Dei's Fields is 2011-12 female athlete of the year
It was mid-December and Mater Dei's girls basketball team was in the midst of practice when Athletic Director Philip Bellomo walked into the gym, motioned over Coach Kevin Kiernan and whispered the two most important words of the season:
Nirra Fields, who had arrived via Virginia only a few months earlier and initially was deemed ineligible because of a paperwork issue, was quietly hurting after missing the first two weeks of the season.
"She'd practice every day, it was just tough to watch her do that. This is her senior year." Kiernan said. "We didn't know when she'd be eligible. Would it be five games? Fifteen games? There was no guarantee she would play. You never know."
Kiernan has dozens of fond memories involving Fields from the past year. Interrupting practice to make this announcement is his favorite.
"All the girls go crazy," Kiernan said. "Nirra's really stoic but she jumped up and smiled. She just wanted to play so bad with this team.
"I think that was the most excited I ever saw her. She could score 40 points and walk off the floor and act like nothing happened."
The ever-focused Fields left the excitement to everyone else during a magical season that has earned her the distinction as the Orange County Register's female athlete of the year for 2011-12.
Fields, who was also the county's girls basketball player of the year and Gatorade's state player of the year, led Mater Dei to its third consecutive state title and fourth consecutive CIF-SS championship. The UCLA-bound guard also became the first Canadian female selected to the McDonald's All-American team.
"It worked out better than I thought it would," said Fields, who has experienced many detours on a basketball journey that began while growing up in Quebec.
Fields was raised by a single mother, the only girl and the second youngest of six siblings. In elementary school, she played running back, receiver and cornerback on one of her brother's football teams. She did this for a couple years, while also playing soccer, rugby and track, before her mother decided the boys were getting too big and made Fields quit football.
"I was always on the field," Fields said. "I just wanted to do what my brothers did."
In seventh grade, Fields turned her attention to basketball and quickly fell in love, dominating boys her own age and girls as old as 17. That left her at a crossroads.
"I wanted to take basketball seriously," said Fields, who at 14 asked her mother if she could move to the States. "She didn't want to say no but she didn't want to say yes. At the end of the day, she said, I don't want to hold you back from your dreams."
Fields moved to Ohio under the guardianship of AAU coach Michael Duncan. But after her high school shut down, she transferred to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia for her junior year. During this time she forged a bond with the family of Duncan's best friend, former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. When Brown was hired by the Lakers, he offered to become Fields' guardian and move her to the Browns' new Orange County residence.
"It meant a lot," Fields said. "I'd never been to California. It was kind of a no-brainer. It was almost like they were my family."
The day Fields made her Mater Dei debut, a dazzling 29-point effort, senior point guard Jordan Adams, an equally heralded prospect headed to USC, suffered a knee injury that threatened to end her season. The Monarchs were already replacing last year's county female athlete of the year and national award-winner, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
"Knowing that Jordan was hurt, I had to pick up the load and do more than Coach expected me to do," Fields said. "I kept that in mind every game."
The 5-foot-9 Fields went on to average 22.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.1 steals and scored in double digits in every game. In the playoffs, she tied the school record with 41 points against Chaminade and rallied the Monarchs in their CIF-SS Division 1AA final against Brea Olinda by scoring 15 of her 19 points in the second half.
"She played at the same level all the time," Kiernan said. "She never dipped or had to go up to another gear. It was sustained excellence all year. It's not common for anybody. It's human nature to have a bad game, even for coaches. She just didn't have a bad night.
"We felt lucky all year long. She just fell into our laps. It was a good marriage."
Just like Fields and basketball.