SAMOHI — The good news is that the Vikings can excel despite missing its top player and a valuable transfer. The bad news is that they were forced to play without them during the Nike Tournament of Champions.
Santa Monica High School’s girls basketball team (8-4 overall) finished the tourney 3-1 on Tuesday with a 47-37 win over Villa Park, good for fifth place in a division that included 16 teams. The win came despite the absence of UCLA-bound senior guard Thea Lemberger, who missed the tournament in Arizona due to what she and Head Coach Marty Verdugo both said were personal reasons.
“It’s a private matter,” Verdugo said, “a coach’s decision.”
While neither player nor coach would elaborate on what took place, it was clear that there was an issue between the two that forced Verdugo to make the tough decision to leave the All-California Interscholastic Federation performer in Santa Monica.
“She’s a great kid,” Verdugo said. “When she comes back, she will take us to a great level.”
Helping to fill the void left by Lemberger’s absence was transfer Moriah Faulk, who was cleared by the CIF late during the first game of the tournament against Arizona’s Pinnacle. She was immediately put in the lineup and helped lead the Vikings to victory. She played during the remainder of the tournament impressing Verdugo along the way.
“I knew she was really good,” Verdugo said, “I didn’t realize she was great.”
Verdugo was particularly pleased by her defensive play. She came away with a black eye, a bloody lip and the admiration of her new coach.
Another transfer who promises to improve the Vikings was denied in her quest to become eligible. Bianka Balthazar, who attended the same Arizona high school as Faulk, has been ruled ineligible for now and must wait for the CIF to reopen after the holidays to file an appeal.
“I’m hoping to get her back by league,” Verdugo said. “She can play the following year, but we don’t want to lose her for the whole year.
“She’s the kind of player that helps us play against the really good teams.”
Even without Lemberger and Balthazar, Verdugo was impressed by the play of senior shooting guard Lilly Feder, who has committed to play for UC San Diego with her sister and former Samohi star, Daisy.
“Feder helped solidify everything as we tried to regroup a little bit,” Verdugo said. “She not only played big on the boards, but her senior leadership helped take us a long way through this week.”
One of the more interesting developments in Arizona was the emergence of freshman Brianna Harris. She was previously seventh or eighth on the depth chart, but was inserted into the starting lineup at off guard and immediately rewarded Verdugo for trusting the young player. He said that she is already drawing the attention of college recruiters and expects her to continue to contribute to the team.
“She had people asking ‘who’s that girl,’” Verdugo said.
The Vikings will be off for the next two weeks for the holiday break. Verdugo plans to give his players some much-needed time off. The team has engaged in an aggressive early-season schedule that Verdugo hopes will condition the team for big matchups during the Ocean League season and postseason.
“This is a great opportunity to recharge the battery and think about what has worked,” he said. “The girls deserve the time off.”