SANTA ANA — Looks like Marty Verdugo is getting his wish.
Santa Monica High School’s head girls’ basketball coach came into the season looking to play some of the best teams in the nation. Samohi has already played (and lost to) the second ranked team in the country, Illinois’ Bolingbrook, and now prepares to face No. 1 Santa Ana Mater Dei on the road this Saturday.
Despite the long odds, Samohi, ranked No. 6 in the current California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1AA poll, is no slouch, said Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan. He’s been following Samohi’s rise to being a regional power and had nothing but praise for a program that won its first CIF-SS title in the sport last year.
This matchup is particularly interesting because Samohi was elevated to CIF-SS Division 1AA this season, the same division Mater Dei won last year. If both teams are to advance deep into the playoffs, a rematch is a real possibility. So, this game may be a preview of what’s to come for both squads.
“I think [Santa Monica] is a tough team to play,” Kiernan said. “They are the kind of team, talent wise, that can get it going at the right time and give anybody trouble.”
The two teams had a sneak peek at each other in December during the elite Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona. The teams were in the same bracket and had the opportunity to see each other play on multiple occasions. Both Verdugo and Kiernan came away impressed by the opposing side. While a matchup didn’t transpire, the scouting done by each school should pay dividends on Saturday at Mater Dei.
“I know we can play with them,” Verdugo said. “But, they are big, athletic and confident. They definitely have swagger.”
To combat Mater Dei’s obvious poise, Verdugo said that he hopes to exploit mismatches created by the Monarch’s man-on-man defensive scheme. He said that Samohi sophomore Briana Harris, who has come into her own this year, may prove to be the wild card he needs to topple the nation’s top team according to USA Today’s poll.
“From first glance, they rely on over-powering teams,” Verdugo said. “They have the ability to go on 10-point runs at any moment.”
Besides seeing Mater Dei during the Nike tourney, Verdugo has a bit of practical experience to rely on. Samohi hosted Mater Dei last year, falling 69-57. Despite the final score, Samohi was able to keep pace with the Monarchs through three quarters, but ultimately fell victim to Mater Dei’s superior talent in the fourth period.
While Mater Dei returns many of its stars including UConn-bound Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and nationally recruited junior Jordan Adams, Samohi’s roster has matured a year.
Back are UCLA-bound Moriah Faulk and Long Beach State recruit Bianka Balthazar, two players who have made Mater Dei’s Kiernan take notice. But, of all of Samohi’s weapons, he fears point guard Kristina “KJ” Johnson most.
The speedy little point guard is exactly the type of player that Kiernan said gives his team fits on defense. He hasn’t decided who will guard Johnson, but predicts that she will be the most difficult Samohi player to contend with.
“That little point guard can move,” Kiernan said. “We saw her in Phoenix [during the Nike tournament] and were impressed by her ability to move the ball.”
Samohi’s big three of Faulk, Balthazar and Johnson may have caught Mater Dei’s attention, but Verdugo said that the less heralded Kalaria Obasi and Imani Holloway may be the keys to what would be a historic victory for the program.
The pair of post players emerged during the Arizona trip with Holloway getting a pair of starts.
“We need our bench,” Verdugo said. “I need them to help us pound the boards.”