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Left Senior point guard Jennie Harding of the Santa Monica High Schoo Varsityl girls basketball team watches as her teamate senior forward Ellesse Brandis pull down a rebound in front of a member of the Crescenta Valley High School varsity girls basketball team nside the North Gym located on the campus of Santa Monica HIgh School on Saturday Febuary 21st 2009 as SMO hosted Valley in the second round of the CIF southern Sectional playoffs for girls varsity basketball and won by a score of 60-30 (photo by Morgan Genser)

SAMOHI — It seems that the third time was truly a charm for the girls basketball team.

For the third straight season, the Santa Monica High School Vikings advanced to the third round of the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division I-A playoffs. But unlike the two previous trips, this visit to the quarter finals ended with a 63-48 road victory over Chino Hills on Wednesday and a berth in the semifinals.

“We’re really excited because we have never gotten this far before,” senior guard Natalie Foshag said on Friday during a break in classes. “We were favored, but it still feels pretty good no matter where you are or where you come from.”

The no. 2 seeded Vikings will take on no. 3 seeded Canyon Springs at Crossroads High School Saturday at 6:30 p.m., with the winner advancing to the title game against the winner of Ayala and Colony. Samohi Athletic Director Norm Lacy said this is the deepest any girls basketball team has ever advanced in the history of the school.

“There is a lot of pressure, but at the same time, we’re trying to have fun and play our game,” senior guard Paige Maeda said.

But, before the Vikings can start looking ahead to a possible appearance in the title game, they will have to contend with an athletic squad from Canyon Springs.

Marty Verdugo, in his third season as head coach, is impressed with the overall quickness of Canyon Springs.

“They push the ball at all times,” Verdugo said. “They have a great guard tandem, one that shoots the ball well, the other is a great penetrator.”

He added that Canyon Springs’ front court players are good in transition and are active in the full court press. He expects a tough challenge and is happy the game is being held in Samohi’s backyard.

“We’re going to have to get back and stop the ball and make the paint look really crowded,” Verdugo said of his strategy. “I want to have three, four people back in transition defense the whole time.”

Foshag, who describes her game as defense first, will play a pivotal role when Canyon Springs has the ball. She personally hopes the game gets physical because she’s always looking for an excuse to mix it up.

“I like when we play scrappy teams,” she said. “I have an excuse to give some extra elbows in there.

“If they are playing sweet and nice, you feel bad doing that sort of thing.”

That mentality on the defensive side of the ball certainly came to the forefront on Wednesday against Chino Hills.

After a slow start offensively, the Vikings found themselves clinging to a 27-26 halftime lead in a hostile environment. Verdugo said that the referees established control of the game early, calling a number of borderline fouls. Realizing the referees were officiating a tight game, Verdugo looked to his defense to rise to the occasion.

“We tried to keep the score down until we got going offensively,” he said. “We executed some good plays [during the second half].”

Leading the charge was junior guard Thea Lemberger with 27 points. Senior center Ellesse Brandis added 19 in the victory.

“When Ellesse is on top of her game, I think we’re unstoppable,” Verdugo said of his go-to post player.

While any road game in the playoffs is bound to test the resolve of any team, Verdugo said that it helped his team piece together a cohesive effort.

“They handled it well,” he said. “They were ready for it. We were as focused for that game as any game that came before it.”

He credits strong senior leadership with providing backbone for his squad.

“We are a veteran team that played a tough schedule,” he said. “We were ready to accomplish the task.”

Following the stirring victory, he said he witnessed his team celebrate like never before.

“I saw them go back to the youthfulness of being excited about a victory,” Verdugo said. “They realized they had done something special.”

Senior forward Ayana Robinson said the secret to this season’s success didn’t take place on the hardwood or show up in a box score.

“This year we really bonded,” she said. “We help each other out with our school work and things like that.”

daniela@smdp.com