Originally Published Feb. 8, 2011
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
SOUTH PASADENA.–This has been a year of palpable excitement for the South Pasadena girls’ basketball team. After a 2009-2010 season that saw the Lady Tigers finish only one game above .500 and get bounced out the first round of the playoffs, they have turned things around in a big way. They are assured of a spot when the postseason gets underway next week and this Thursday, they’ll take on Monrovia with the Rio Hondo League title potentially on the line.
With all the team’s success this season, what had junior guard Kelsey Nakamura bouncing happily around the gymnasium after practice last Thursday? The chance at first place? A trip to the playoffs?
None of the above; Nakamura was giddy about the velvety-smooth cover of her new calculus textbook.
“It’s so shiny and clean,”she boasted, hoisting it high for everyone around her to see.
Her older sister, senior Katie Nakamura, who plays at forward on the South Pas squad, told Kelsey, “Oh please, try not to be too much of a nerd!”
If the younger Nakamura shows a healthy zeal for her schoolwork, it has certainly paid off. In her high school career thus far, she has never scored any grade short of an A .
But this nerd doesn’t spend all her time with her nose in a book.
Nakamura also happens to be one of the Tigers’ top two scorers, putting up 10.2 points per contest. In fact, the other hot hand on this team belongs to the other Kelsey, senior guard Kelsey Lee.
If there’s anyone who takes charge on the Tigers, it’s Lee. Heading into Tuesday’s game, she was leading South Pas with 12.5 points per game, including 35 three-pointers and 49 free throws. The 17-year-old has also taken her role as one of the team captains very seriously.
“Kelsey Lee’s our leader. She’s like our team mom, she’s our Varsity captain, a four-year letterman,” said head coach Rich Kitagawa. “She makes us go, and it’s not just scoring. She’s our leader in the locker room, at practice, off and on the court, she takes charge of this team,” he explained.
Kitagawa described how once he was appointed head coach of the girls’ team after two seasons as an assistant, it was Lee who called a meeting with him to discuss a variety of tasks.
“She takes care of all the things that need to be done, but may distract a head coach from the game,” Kitagawa explained. “She handles all that stuff so that I can focus on basketball. It helps, because then I don’t have to deal with shoes, uniforms and other issues.”
Lee said taking control on the court is simply a matter of diligent preparation.
“At times, we look for our coach, he coaches us in situations in practice, so we have to be able to do things on the go,” she described. “Mentally, he has coached us well in practice to be able to do those things on our own.”
Kitagawa called Lee an excellent all-around player who could play just about any position in the team’s offense, though at 5-foot-nothing, she’s an unlikely candidate to fill in at center.
And once the Lady Tigers lose Lee to graduation, it will be Nakamura, 16, who will be expected to fill the five-foot gap in the lineup. She is being groomed to pick up some of Lee’s duties, and has already begun, planning Senior Night and working with equipment vendors for next year’s team.
“The coaches have been telling me that next year, I’ll need to be the leader,” Nakamura said. “I wasn’t always used to the idea, because Kelsey was always here, and the previous years I wasn’t always at point guard. They keep reminding me and I think I’m ready for that.”
Having played together since they were 6 or 7 years old, the Kelseys are an effective one-two punch, but as opposing teams have tried to shut them down, other South Pas players have stepped up their productivity.
Katie Nakamura is posting 5.6 points per contest and has hit 62 percent of her free throws, and junior Victoria Pallares has proven to be a feisty, gutsy ball handler whose penetration and shooting has improved dramatically this season.
Speaking of scrappy, any article about Kelsey Lee would be remiss in not mentioning that pain is an unmistakeable part of her game. It seems the petite guard takes four or five hard falls every game, but she said that’s simply the way she gets the job done.
“I was born scrappy!” Lee joked, “That’s a part of my game that I rely on. At my size, my defensive side of my game is really important. You have to make up for height, so you have to be scrappy and really fast.”
While her parents, Allen and Sharon Lee have become accustomed to the hard-nose style, Kitagawa said it can be hard to watch.
“There have been a couple of games that we’ve had to give her off, because she’s all bumped and bruised,” he said. “That’s really the way both Kelseys play. They go for the basket, they get knocked down, they bounce back up. They’re not afraid to hit the wood.”
While Nakamura will be spending the summer looking forward to her senior year, Lee is hoping she’ll be preparing to study speech pathology at the University of Redlands, a school that also boasts a fine women’s basketball program. Knowing fully well that the college game is a world beyond high school, Lee said she is always looking to the next level.
“Every game is hard, a new challenge. There’s always something. If you go into a game and your shots don’t fall, you have to adjust and every game has its obstacles, and that’s fun for me,” she explained.
With their Rio Hondo record at 7-1 before tonight’s home game against Temple City, South Pasadena is guaranteed second place in league and a spot in the playoffs. However, things could get very interesting indeed, if the Tigers win today and first place Monrovia loses at La Cañada. That would leave both teams with 8-1 records and the league championship up for grabs on Thursday, the final day of the regular season. That game is scheduled for 5:15 at Monrovia.