SAMOHI — Facing one of the top-ranked team in the country is no lay-up drill, but the Vikings have a few things in their favor.
As Santa Monica High School’s girls basketball team (15-5 overall, 5-0 in Ocean League play) prepares to host Mater Dei (20-1 overall, 6-0 in Trinity League play) on Saturday at 8 p.m. as part of the Westside
Challenge, a few favorable personnel issues have come to light.
Samohi’s Bianka Baltizar, a junior transfer from Arizona, was cleared to play by the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section this week after initially being denied eligibility. She played on Wednesday in a win against Hawthorne, an outing that Head Coach Marty Verdugo said was productive, albeit brief. She isn’t expected to start, but will be the top reserve off the bench. Baltizar is the second of two touted transfers from the same school, the other being Moriah Faulk, who was cleared to play earlier this season.
“It’s a tale of two teams,” Mater Dei Head Coach Kevin Kiernan said of Samohi. “You can’t go by what they did earlier in the season.
“They are much, much stronger than they were a month ago, even a week ago. They were good before, now they have a chance to be a great team.”
For Mater Dei, its roster is heading the opposite direction. The Monarchs have already lost three starters to injury or transfer, and may be forced to play without a fourth on Saturday — guard Jordan Adams. She injured an ankle this week, an injury Kiernan said may keep her off the court.
The absence of Adams may bode well for Samohi’s star Thea Lemberger. The UCLA-bound guard would be defended by Jordan if she can play. Even if she does play, Kiernan said he doesn’t expect her to be at full strength. She’s been on crutches since the injury and he isn’t overly optimistic that she can overcome the injury. Because this is a non-league game, he doesn’t want to chance losing Adams for an extended period of time if she aggravates it.
Mater Dei may be coming into the game shorthanded, but that doesn’t overly concern Lemberger. She said she tries to approach each game and opponent the same, but did admit that she’s excited to challenge a team of this caliber.
“I don’t feel like the game is going to be that much more difficult,” Lemberger said. “We’ve been playing good teams all year. This is just another good team.”
Facing top competition is nothing new for Samohi. Verdugo stacks his non-league schedule with heavy hitters to prepare his team for what may come in the playoffs. Last week, Samohi stifled Troy, a team ranked in the top 10 in the state by Maxpreps.com. Mater Dei’s Kiernan was impressed by Samohi’s showing, fearing that his team could be in for a similar fate if they don’t show up to play.
Despite the depleted roster, defending CIF-SS Division 2 champ Mater Dei still has junior guard Kaleena Lewis on its side. The talented Lewis is rumored to be heading to UCONN and is widely considered one of the top, if not the top, recruit in the state. With the status of Adams uncertain, Lewis may draw the assignment guarding the crafty Lemberger, although Kiernan said he wasn’t sure how he would match up defensively against Samohi.
“I expect them to come at us hard,” Verdugo said. “They are going to take this game seriously.
“It’s a battle of powers in Southern California.”