The Santa Monica High girls’ basketball program wasn’t in very good shape when Marcus Charuvastra became head coach six years ago.
There was some progress, and current coach Marty Verdugo credits Charuvastra for moving the program in the right direction.
“I was his assistant and he gave me a lot of responsibility,” recalls Verdugo. “He knew he was leaving to complete his education and he guided me into the position.”
This is Verdugo’s fourth year and it’s been quite a ride for his team, which is 24-6 going into the CIF championship game Saturday against Summit High of Fontana.
In the second game of the season Samohi lost to Summit, 40-39 in a tournament game. In defeat the Vikings learned how tough challenges would be as they played a difficult schedule.
“We’ve played one of the most challenging schedules of any team in Southern California,” said Verdugo. “We went to Arizona for a tournament, we played Mater Dei and we won the Ocean League, which was one of the best leagues this season.
“Five of our six teams won their first round playoff games and Inglewood is in the CIF Final in another division.”
Inglewood provided the severest league challenge but Santa Monica won both meetings, reversing what happened a year ago when Inglewood was the league champion.
The ride was exciting but far from smooth. First star guard Thea Lemberger was left home from the Arizona trip for something that was never explained to the media. Then, when she returned to the team, several changes altered the roster.
For a team with championship aspirations, significant changes halfway through the schedule frequently cause a major disruption. Verdugo was gaining two talented 5-foot-11 transfers, but keeping the starting unit cohesive was going to require some time.
Samohi had two high profile non-league games. It defeated Troy High but lost to Mater Dei. Then one of the newcomers, Moriah Faulk, missed the first two playoff games with a knee injury.
Faulk and Banika Baltizar came along well, but sophomore center Sabrina Jorton unexpectedly was pulled out of school as the family moved to Seattle. Father Ken Norton, who was an assistant on Pete Carroll’s football coaching staff at USC, went with Carroll to the Seahawks. The original plan was for Sabrina to complete the basketball season here.
“It was sudden,” said Verdugo. “Sabrina was our spiritual leader.” And so, Sabrina’s chair next to Verdugo on the team bench at home games remains vacant.
As seasons go along, some teams improve as players blend their talents while others fail as individuals focus on their goals. This team came together as players bought into Verdugo’s message that the only goal was to win the first CIF basketball championship in school history.
They’re one game away.
Mirror Sports Editorsports@smmirror.com