We are continuing with a series of girls basketball preseason-style features on some of the state’s most prominent programs and players for the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost been one year since any of them have played and it may end up being until December of 2021 for some. We hope that isn’t the case, but the work is continuing and for this report we go inside a team that would have probably started a normal season at No. 1 in Southern California. Coming Next: Windward (Los Angeles).
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For our first preview of the top girls basketball teams in California we featured the Monarchs of Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) as the ones that would have started a normal 2020-21 season as the No. 1 team in Northern California.
Now, for our second installment, we go to Southern California for the same team in the Southland, and in doing so, we make the Monarchs’ mascot two-for-two as Mater Dei of Santa Ana gets the nod.
Just as the consensus among coaches and analysts queried for our choice as the No. 1 team in Northern California was unanimous, the consensus for No. 1 in Southern California was pretty much undisputed, although this year like last year the SoCal field of top teams is a bit more crowded than in NorCal.
The Monarchs ended last season as the No. 4 team in Southern California and No. 5 overall in the final expanded state rankings after losing to Long Beach Poly in the first round of the CIF Southern Regional Open Division playoffs.
To some, this would be a disappointment since after winning the Open Division of the CIF Southern Section with wins over state-ranked Etiwanda, Lynwood, Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) and Windward of Los Angeles the Monarchs were seeded No. 2 in the SoCal playoffs and favored to meet eventual state No. 1 and top-seeded La Jolla Country Day.
Although state all-time winningest coach Kevin Kiernan obviously would have liked to see his Monarchs follow up the Southern Section Open title with a state championship, or at least a spot in the title game that never was played, he refused to be disappointed. Kiernan passed the 800-win mark with 805 career victories, the team won the toughest playoffs in the country, and for him personally he was able to do it last year with his daughter Camryn Kiernan in her senior season.
“I have to tell you, last year was not a disappointment for us,” Kiernan said. “Winning the Southern Section Open Division championship is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in coaching.”
“It was our first open championship and the competition down here is unbelievable,” Kiernan continued. “I believe it is the toughest tournament bracket in the nation. We didn’t match up very well with Long Beach Poly last year so a tip of the hat to them. We really enjoyed last season and winning a ring with my daughter was special. We were also very grateful we got our season in before the shutdown – very grateful.”
Other top teams in Southern California have some very solid returners, but no one returns as much talent as Kiernan, and it starts with Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year candidate and Stanford-bound 6-foot-3 senior Brooke Demetre, who is listed as a guard but can play any position on the floor.
Last season, and on a team with eight girls averaging 3.5 points per game or better, Demetre was second on the team in scoring, rebounding and assists at 12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, respectively, plus she shot 80.9 percent from the free throw line. For her efforts, Demetre was a Ms. Basketball finalist for the second straight year last season and was named to the 10-girl All State Elite First Team Overall. Just this week she also learned she was named to the McDonald’s All-American Game (although the game itself will not be played due to the pandemic).
When asked for a one-line description of his players, Kiernan said the following about Demetre. “Brooke is a great player who continues to challenge herself to get better every day; truly a great teammate and leader.”
Known mostly for her offense and shooting, senior Alyssa Durazo Frescas led the team in scoring and three-pointers. The Nevada-Las Vegas bound guard averaged 13.5 points per game and had 91 made three-pointers, plus she also added 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. The All State Elite Third Team selection shot 56.1 percent from the field plus 39 percent from outside the arc. From the free throw line, had her stats been reported to MaxPreps, her 86.4 percent from the charity stripe would have been the official No. 2 mark in the state behind Ms. Basketball Te-hina Paopao of La Jolla Country Day.
“Alyssa is one of the hardest working kids I have ever coached,” Kiernan said. “She just loves to play basketball; a tremendous shooter and a vocal leader.”
A girl who has shown consistent improvement from the first time we saw her on the court as a sophomore is Meaali’i Amosa. The 6-foot-1 Pepperdine-bound senior power forward led the Monarchs in rebounding at 6.9 per game and her 9.0 points per game was third on the team.
“Mae improves every day and gives us some size and strength inside; another great leader,” Kiernan said.
Ayanna Johnson is a 5-10 senior guard who likely could play in college but she has decided to focus on her goal of becoming an architect. Last season, she averaged 3.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
“AJ has made big strides this summer and is playing the best I have ever seen her play,” Kiernan remarked.
The four returning seniors form the core of the Monarchs’ strength but one of the things that separate Mater Dei from other top teams in Southern California is the depth of its underclass players.
Since transferring to Mater Dei prior to last season, a player who has shown she has the potential to be a big-time talent, and is starting to get some attention from D1 colleges is junior Soleil Montrose. The junior guard averaged 7.2 points per game last season.
“Soleil is a very strong, physical guard with outstanding offensive ability,” Kiernan said. “She should jump right into the starting lineup for us.”
Another girl who turned some heads last season as a freshman was Caia Elisaldez. The sophomore point guard was fourth on the team in scoring and led the Monarchs in assists with 7.3 points and 4.2 assists per game.
“Caia had a huge and impactful year for us last season,” Kiernan said. “We don’t accomplish what we did without her. Caia is a special talent who can be as good as she wants to be. She changes speeds better than any player I have ever seen.”
Lani White is a junior guard who came off the bench last season and a player Kiernan is looking to for some steady improvement.
“Lani is probably our best all around athlete and will play a ton this year,” Kiernan remarked. “We are looking for big things from her.”
Sophomore point guard Hannah Vela missed most of last season due to injury but Kiernan has high hopes for her as well.
“Hannah is a quick, tough guard who will play good minutes for us this year,” Kiernan said. “She got hurt at the West Coast Jamboree last year but has made an amazing recovery; tough kid.”
Kiernan also wanted to give a shout out to Tiarah Galvan whom he called “a senior who can shoot.”
Finally, we get to the incoming freshmen, and from what we saw of them in practice in early February, Kiernan has some up and comers.
According to Kiernan, Emily Shaw is “a 5-7 guard who can shoot. Smart kid, good athlete; she will play for us.”
Isabel Clark is a 6-foot-1 budding two-sport star. “Tremendous athlete with good size and tremendous potential that’s splitting time with us and volleyball,” Kiernan said.
Gabrielle Robinson just arrived after transferring from Orange Lutheran but has already made an impression on Kiernan. “Gabby has only been with us a few weeks but is very talented. Good size and strength for a guard. She has a chance to be a really good player and an elite defender.”
There are a lot of tough teams in Southern California but with the talent and depth Kiernan and his staff have they are going to be hard to beat if we have some kind of season.
In the meantime, the Mater Dei coaches are preparing for a season and trying to keep the girls motivated. A plus has been unlike some other schools they have been able to hold practices in their well ventilated gym, and observing some strict protocols.
“The girls’ attitude has been optimistic and grateful,” Kiernan remarked. “We do get to practice and see each other every day so we are all hopeful.
“I am happy to have such a great group of kids. It doesn’t happen all the time,” Kiernan continued. “My goal for them throughout this was to keep the gym open every day so they had a place to go if it was safe and to encourage and keep them hopeful. We have paced ourselves in the event we play and we are in a good spot. We are eager to play but not burned out by the long layoff between actual games; a very tricky process this year.”
Even though the possibility of basketball being played looks better each day as the pandemic’s numbers continue to decline, the number of games played likely is going to be significantly reduced to perhaps as few as 10-12 games. Indoor sports such as basketball also were not addressed in new California Department of Public Health guidelines released last Friday (they remain in the yellow tier) but the consensus is that some of those restrictions will be eased as the indoor sports get closer to beginning (later in March).
“I would be happy with any amount of games we get, just grateful to be able to come to work and see kids and not empty buildings or computer screens,” Kiernan said in conclusion.
Right now, a lot of high school basketball coaches, players and fans share those very sentiments.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend