SportStars Magazine

High Intensity

Basketball at top speed helped make Miramonte the best candidate to become the first unbeaten NCS champ in 12 years.

  By Chace Bryson | Editor

 

It’s halftime inside the team room of the Miramonte High girls basketball team.

The Feb. 17 game — a regular season finale against Diablo Foothill Athletic League arch rival Campolindo — is not going as anticipated.

On the line this evening is a perfect 26-0 regular season, a feat which hadn’t been accomplished by an East Bay basketball team, boys or girls, since 2006. 

Campolindo, the same team which Miramonte beat 82-39 a mere three weeks prior, is hanging around, trailing by just 12 points after the first 16 minutes of play. Though they’d held the Cougars to just 13 points, not much had gone right for Miramonte. The Matadors just could not buy a basket. Not only were their 3-point shots not falling, but neither were the fast break layups, the offensive put-backs or free throws. 

As the Matadors trudged into their team room, there was a quiet undercurrent of emotion. 

It wasn’t panic. 

There may have been some frustration seeping out, but the primary feeling in the room seemed to be a quiet confidence — an eagerness to get back on the floor and prove to a near-full gym that the perfect record wasn’t in any sort of jeopardy. 

Nobody said a word until coach Kelly Sopak asked, “What’d you guys think?”

Junior point guard Carly Gill quickly responded.

“We’re playing hard. The shots just aren’t falling.”

The 11 other players, consciously or subconsciously, all seemed to nod their heads in agreement. Sopak agreed, too.

“In terms of effort, you guys are fine,” the third-year coach of the Matadors said. “Everything is fine. Hard work pays off. It’s going to pay off … Shots will fall.”

In that 30-second exchange is the blueprint for Miramonte’s overwhelming dominance this season.

The team came out and promptly put the game out of reach with a 19-4 run over the first 3:44 of the third quarter. The first five baskets were all layups, and then the 3-pointers started falling. Gill sank the first, and when Megan Reid hit hers with 4:16 to go in the quarter, Campolindo finally called timeout. The 25-13 halftime score was now 44-17. 

Approximately a half hour later, with the final minutes of the game ticking off the clock, the Miramonte student section confidently broke into a chant. 

“Un-de-feat-ed! Un-de-feat-ed.”

 

* * *

 

A little more than 24 hours earlier, Sopak is watching his team run through shooting drills during a Wednesday practice. 

It’s the day before the regular season finale and it’s impossible to tell if the team is feeling any jitters over its chances at closing out the regular season without a loss. The mood is loose and playful.

“I’ve never had a team like this,” he said. “I’ve had good teams, but none that have meshed and got along so well together.”

Certainly the absence of any losing doesn’t hurt, but Sopak maintains the cohesion on this team on and off the floor has been present from as far back as summer 2011. 

“We had lost our two best players, on paper (to graduation), and there probably were more questions surrounding this year’s team than any before it,” Sopak said. “But in our few summer workouts and tournaments, we felt like they were already buying into the team. Nobody was looking around saying we were missing anybody. It was like, ‘This is our team, and we’re pretty good.’ I think it just snowballed from there.”

Sopak arrived at Miramonte prior to the 2009-10 season, the second stop of his high school head coaching career. He came in on the heels of a wildly successful four-year stint at Northgate where he was 94-20 with two North Coast Section Division II finals appearances.

The Matadors program had a history of success, but had fallen into a state of flux just two years after reaching the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional championship in 2008. Sopak was going to be the third coach in as many years.

Darrell Hirashima Sr., who chalked up 238 wins in building the program into its powerhouse status, was essentially fired following the 2007-08 season in a controversial decision that brought upheaval to the program, school and entire Orinda community. James Kizziee replaced the beloved coach and steered his way through a strong season, despite a difficult circumstance made worse when Hirashima tragically died of a heart attack in December 2008. 

After Kizziee stepped aside, Sopak came into the picture battling the emotions of leaving his first program and wondering if he’d made the right move. 

“It was an emotional time,” said the coach, who went 19-9 in his first season with the Matadors. “And I was the third coach in as many years, so that was obviously a fear going into it. But I couldn’t have asked for stronger support from the school’s administration and community.”

 

* * *

 

As the only high school in town, there’s never been a shortage of community support for Miramonte basketball. Even non-rivalry games can fill the gym to two-thirds capacity.

Community members carry in their portable chair-back seats and watch the game referring to the players by their first name. It’s the place to be on Friday nights. 

While the boys stamped a ticket to the NCS Division III playoffs for a fourth time in five seasons, it’s the girls who currently get the “showtime” tag behind their perfect record. 

It helps that watching the current Matadors is about the farthest thing from boring. 

Miramonte knows only one speed, and it’s not for the light of heart. They apply constant full-court pressure defense, constantly look to break on offense, and unabashedly fire away from behind the 3-point line. 

“I would like to say that we work harder than any team out there,” said starting wing Devon McDonald, one of just three seniors on the team. “We just come out with so much intensity and make it impossible for teams to match that.”

McDonald, who Sopak described as the embodiment of what he’d wish every Miramonte player to be like, stands 5-foot-11 and seemingly can be everywhere on the floor at once. She’s the lighting rod for the team’s pressure defense. Her steal and ensuing layup at the buzzer won the team’s closest game of the season to date, a 64-62 triumph at Dougherty Valley on Feb. 7.

“She just goes out and plays,” Sopak said. “You can’t put a price tag on a player who goes out there for 20-25 minutes a night and risks injury to make that one play that can swing a game.”

McDonald might be the prototype for that type of effort, but it’s present throughout a deep roster that features a little bit of everything. 

Fellow seniors Taylor Kizziee (the daughter of Sopak’s one-year predecessor) and Janine Loutzenhiser are both key weapons. Kizziee can score inside and outside, while Sopak labeled Loutzenhiser as potentially the best pure shooter he’s coached. There are seven sophomores, including starting center Breanna Alford and the team’s best overall athlete in Reid. 

Reid, who also starts for the school’s soccer team during the same winter months as the basketball season, is Sopak’s first player off the bench. In the season-finale win over Campolindo she totaled 11 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot.

“She’s our x-factor,” Sopak said. “She’s the one player that no one else has. … At least coming off the bench, they don’t.” 

She might be the ultimate x-factor if the No. 2-seed Matadors reach the NCS Div. III final for an anticipated showdown with top seed Bishop O’Dowd. Despite their perfect record, the Matadors would be unquestioned underdogs in a championship bout against the Dragons — the No. 6-ranked team in the state as of Feb. 14. There hasn’t been an unbeaten section champion since the Newark Memorial boys went 29-0 in the 1999-2000 season.

Sopak said Bishop O’Dowd has been the “elephant in the room” for some time now, and while acknowledging the overwhelming talent of the Dragons, he’ll put his team’s effort up against anyone at this point. 

So will Loutzenhiser. 

“We all have the mentality that as long as we go in there and play intense and know that no other team can match our intensity,” she said. “We’ll do that and then we’ll see how it goes.” 


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