Pandemic, coaching change are early season obstacles for rebuilding Ladycats

Brooklyn+Kame%2C+sophomore%2C+and+Sophia+Williams%2C+junior%2C+practice+a+dribbling+drill+at+Brea+Junior+High+School+Feb.+4.+The+Ladycats+have+since+moved+to+the+gym+as+COVID-19+restrictions+have+eased+and+competition+resumes.+

Alexis Alexander

Brooklyn Kame, sophomore, and Sophia Williams, junior, practice a dribbling drill at Brea Junior High School Feb. 4. The Ladycats have since moved to the gym as COVID-19 restrictions have eased and competition resumes.

The Ladycats program has faced a chain of obstacles over the past few years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed their season from November to March, and for the fifth time in 10 years, a search for a new head coach. 

Currently, Henry Johnson, Jr., boys’ varsity basketball coach, is temporarily filling in as the Ladycats head coach after Nancy Smith stepped away from the position last Fall in order to take over both the girls’ and boys’ golf teams. Smith had a 31-19 record as head coach of the Ladycats, including a 21-5 campaign in 2018-2019, and one CIF appearance. 

The head coaching position is currently open, and while there isn’t a particular candidate in mind, Johnson, who is in his fifth season as boys’ head coach, said, “I know that [administration] is looking for someone who is qualified and able to bring the program back to its glory days,” Johnson said. 

Those “glory days” include 23 league championships, 10 CIF-Southern Section Championships, five state titles (the last in 2015-2016), a national title (in 1994), three state coaches of the year, a national coach of the year (Jeff Sink in 2009), and 21 CIF Player of the Year honors. 

Interviews with head coaching candidates begin this week, according to Dr. Joshua Porter, principal. The goal is to have a new coach helming the program prior to the start of competition on a date that’s still to be determined, according to girls’ Athletic Director Jill Matyuch,

Until the head coaching position is filled, Johnson is leading the girls’ program’s pre-season practices and conditioning. Johnson said, “I am simply trying to make the ladies stronger and faster. Most of the girls have not had a pleasant time in recent months and lost their love for the game.” 

The Ladycats, coming off last season’s record of 10-14, resumed in-person workouts at the Brea Junior High basketball courts on Jan. 25, and returned to the BOHS gym on Feb. 16. The team is currently working on strength, conditioning, shooting, ball handling, and individual drills. 

Navigating practices in a pandemic comes with a lot of rules. CIF safety guidelines require that athletes bring their own equipment with limited to no sharing, and stay at least six feet apart at all times. Following these guidelines can make training for a sport that requires a lot of contact difficult.

Some challenges the Ladycats are encountering are “having to wear a mask while practicing and not being able to do drills that involve contact,” Serena Cook, sophomore, said.

Even with these challenges, the Ladycats are enjoying most aspects of returning to practices. “It feels better to be able to practice as a team again,” Cook said.

“While [practicing in person] puts us at some risk, we’re taking precautions and all the girls are staying safe; as long as we continue that I think we’re okay,” Faith Knapp, junior, said. Knapp was the Ladycats’ top rebounder last season, averaging 9.8 rebounds per game. 

Brooklyn Kame, sophomore, agrees: “[Johnson] makes sure each player has their own basket so that everyone stays safe.” Last season, Kame led the team in three pointers and field goal accuracy at 52.5%.

However, some Ladycats don’t believe that the guidelines do enough to keep everyone safe. “I would rather workout on my own rather than doing it with teammates,” Terri Jun, sophomore, said. Jun opts to avoid possible exposure to the virus, attending twice-a-week Zoom meetings with her teammates who made the same choice. 

Even though they aren’t attending traditional practices, the YouTube workout videos Johnson provides the Zoom attendees is just as effective. “The Zoom workouts encourage me to keep going and push me to try new exercises I don’t normally do at home,” Minjoo Yang, sophomore, said. Even though Zoom workouts are short, Yang believes they are still effective, citing the post-workout pain. 

Despite the apprehension to return to practice in-person the majority of the Ladycats are taking advantage of club teams, allowing them to practice twice as much as they normally would. “I think practicing for two teams helps because [I] can really focus on certain skills that [I] want to improve on so that when it comes time to use them in games [I] already have experience in them,” Zoe Ramirez, sophomore, said. 

The Ladycats are staying motivated by focusing on their camaraderie, the impending return to competition this Spring, and the prospect of a new head coach in the weeks ahead.