Bell-Jeff Returns To Elite Status!

February 12, 2012 by  

BURBANK – Guards secure fifth consecutive Santa Cruz title, increasing league winning streak to 37.

When Averie Guzman, Rishonda Napier and Jasmine Smith made the Bell-Jeff girls’ varsity basketball team as freshmen, they quickly learned the value of “Guard Pride.”

Along with fellow seniors Kiah Jones, a Sierra Canyon transfer, and Burroughs transfer Marilyn Flynn, they have helped restore the proud tradition of one of the state’s elite small-school programs.

Guzman, Napier and Smith became the area’s only seniors this season to win four undefeated girls’ basketball league championships Thursday, increasing Bell-Jeff’s Santa Cruz winning streak to 37 following a 66-24 victory at St. Matthias, punctuating the Guards’ fifth consecutive title.

“As a freshman, I just wanted to come in and be part of a special program and be as successful as I possibly could,” said Napier, who scored a career-high 33 points in her final regular-season game.

“Winning four league championships means so much. I realize it’s something a lot of teams can only dream about. It’s truly amazing.”

Only Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, which captured its sixth consecutive Valley League title, has a longer current run than Bell-Jeff among local girls’ basketball teams.

Monroe, which has combined to win 35 consecutive games in the East Valley and Valley Mission leagues, and Antelope Valley — which boasts a 34-game Golden League winning streak — are other area programs that have demonstrated similar consistency to the Guards (20-7). But


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neither boasts a senior class that has produced 102 victories, a Southern Section Div. V-A title and a Div. V state championship.The latter two achievements came in 2009 when Bell-Jeff secured the school’s first state title in any sport under former coach Bryan Camacho, who left after the following season to accept a women’s assistant position at Cal State Northridge, before taking over as Alemany girls’ basketball coach this season.

“We still have a lot of love for coach Camacho because of the love he instilled in us for this school and this team, and the love and passion he has for the game. That’s still present in every one of us,” said Smith, a San Jose State signee.

“It’s a great honor to go through four years at Bell-Jeff having never lost a league game, not only for me, but for my coaches and teammates. I’m really proud of it.”

Along with dealing with Camacho’s departure midway through their careers, Bell-Jeff has also absorbed significant losses to graduation each year, in addition to losing juniors Clarissa Larios and Leslie Lopez-Wood when they transferred this season to Alemany.

But thanks to the return of Jaclyn Johnson, who led the Guards to their first Southern Section Div. IV-A title under coach Jim Couch in 1997 before playing at Kansas and professionally both in Europe and for the WNBA’s former Orlando Miracle franchise, Bell-Jeff reached the Div. III-A semifinals last year and secured its sixth straight 20-win season Thursday.

“We’re going to be the group that should be remembered because we stuck through key players leaving, players getting hurt and coaching changes, and we always kept pushing forward, no matter what,” Jones said.

“We took what (former players Shelley Gupilan, Margeaux Gupilan and Julia Tani) left for us and we kept persevering and we kept the tradition going. It shows that it’s not about how many players you have, it’s about how well you work together and how badly you want to succeed.”

Although Bell-Jeff boasts only an eight-player roster, including sophomore Karina Moreno and juniors Tiffany Kho and Blair transfer Mariah Bankhead, the Guards haven’t backed down from any challenge, overcoming a 5-6 start this season to win 15 of 16 entering the Div.IV-AA playoffs.

“They’re a veteran group and they know what it takes to win,” said Johnson, the school’s all-time leading scorer who was selected Div. IV player of the year in 1997.

“If we can put two good halves together, then we’re a really tough team. We’re playing good basketball right now, so we need to capitalize on it.”

Bell-Jeff’s poise and maturity were present Tuesday at rival St.Anthony, when Napier overcame deep bruising and a contusion in her right elbow to score 27 points, with Smith adding 11 points in a 46-37 victory that clinched the title, spoiling the Saints’ senior night.

“No matter what it took, I was going to will myself to win that game. I didn’t have time to focus on the pain because we had a league championship to win, so I just had to keep going,” Napier said. “They say that adversity builds character and we’ve definitely had to go through a lot of adversity the last four years, but we stuck together and we overcame it. I learned a lot about myself (Tuesday). It was definitely one of the most memorable moments of my high school career.”

It is that resolve that has been a constant during the careers of the Guards’ quintet, helping Bell-Jeff rebound from a 71-58 home loss Saturday on their senior night to St. Bernard — the team’s first since Dec. 27 — to defeat St. Anthony for the 10th consecutive time.

The Guards will need to demonstrate similar determination to survive in the postseason, with Div. IV-AA featuring three of the state’s top 17 teams according to Cal-Hi Sports, including No. 1 Windward.

“I think it’s more of a mental challenge for us than anything. We’ve shown before that we can do it, we just need to remain focused and be mentally tough,” Smith said. “It’s about us staying together and staying tight because if it wasn’t for our togetherness and staying true to what we believe in, we would have never gotten this far. We started as part of a legacy and we want to end with a legacy.”

But more than just the championship banners that boast their names inside the Bell-Jeff gymnasium, the legacy of Flynn, Guzman, Jones, Napier and Smith will also be defined by the example of balancing competitive greatness with humility that they have showcased for future Guards.

“I really do hope we’ve restored some honor here and that we showed what `Guard Pride’ is all about,” Jones said.

“It’s been an incredible journey and to help this team win league five years in a row is a big deal. But more than anything, I think we finally found ourselves, not only as individuals, but as a team. My only wish is that we’ve inspired people in the future to want to come to Bell-Jeff and do the same.”

Erik Boal/Daily News

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