Santa Monica girls basketball head coach Marty Verdugo must have had Jan. 8 circled on his calendar for a while. That would be the Saturday that the Lady Vikings head down to Santa Ana to play powerhouse Mater Dei.
“They have four All-Americans on the floor,” Verdugo said. “At least three played on the USA [Basketball] Under-17 team. They are fundamentally sound and they know how to play.”
Last month in Arizona for the Nike Tournament of Champions, Santa Monica (11-2) was in the same bracket as Mater Dei but consecutive losses – their first two of the season – to two of the nation’s best teams in Bollinbrook of Illinois and Highlands Ranch of Colorado meant that the Mater Dei match-up would have to wait until Saturday.
The team’s point guard chose her words carefully Monday about the expectations for the big showdown.
“I’m ready to play Mater Dei,” said Samohi senior guard Kristina Johnson. “They’re a good team but I feel like we can possibly beat them. We just have to have great practices throughout the week and we should do fine.”
Win or lose, the Lady Vikings will play another tough Orange County team in Troy of Fullerton in mid-February, and Verdugo, who announced plans to step down at the season’s end, knows they have the Lady Vikings have their work cut out for them. But, Santa Monica played Troy last year and secured a victory that proved to be a “turning point” for the season that culminated in a CIF championship.
“Hopefully we’ll win one of these things,” he said.“We got moved up to the top division, [where] we have to beat Brea Olinda, Long Beach Poly and Mater Dei to win [the CIF regional championship].”
However tough the schedule, the coach believes his team is getting tougher with new stars emerging right behind the Bianka Balthazar, Moriah Faulk and Kristina Johnson.
With averages of 10 to 12 points per game and handling “the dirty work” on defense, Verdugo compares 5-foot-10 senior forward Kalaria Obasi to former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman.
“[She has] quietly done the job the last couple of years,” Verdugo said.
Briana Harris, a 5-foot-8 sophomore guard, has “showed signs of brilliance, displays of athleticism and shooting,” Verdugo said. “We found out she can really play.”
Balthazar paced the Lady Vikings in the Nike tournament wins, a blowout of St. Mary’s from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and a tough victory over Bishop O’Dowd from Oakland. Imani Holloway, a 5-11 junior, also saw playing time that ultimately means the team is just that – a team.
“We were only six-deep,” Verdugo said. “Now I want to really go seven or eight.”