By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
ALHAMBRA.–As the old saying goes, the name on the front of the jersey is what matters most, not the name on the back. But the shirts also have a number, and one numeral in particular has fans of the Mark Keppel High School Aztecs doing a triple-take.
Lauren Saiki is the point guard for the Keppel girls’ team. She wears number three. She has always worn number three. She’s in her third year of high school, and has played each season as a starter at the Varsity level.
Bailey Kikuchi is the point guard for the Keppel boys’ team (stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere before). He wears number three. He’s in his third year of high school, and has played each season as a starter at the Varsity level.
“You just don’t hear about that kind of thing too often,” said Bailey’s father, Joe Kikuchi, who also happens to be the head coach of the Lady Aztecs.
I’ll say you don’t. The similarities are uncanny. Both kids started playing just past the toddler stage with the Tigers organization, and yes, both wore number 3. They each played on SGV club teams, again with that trey on their chests. Throughout their individual careers, Saiki and Kikuchi have known one number, one position and one level: the top.
And the top is where both have their eyes trained. The girls’ program has been revolutionized over the past two or three seasons, with the team taking their high-energy, hot-shooting game deep into the playoffs.
The boys have demonstrated a potent team chemistry. With only one six-footer on the team, the guys have nonetheless jumped out to a hot start this season, with a record of 11-4 going into Tuesday’s matchup at Temple City.
The girls, after finishing with a stellar 27-7 mark and the Almont League title last year, have been all but perfect thus far this season. In fact, their first loss didn’t come until last Saturday, a very uncharacteristic effort in a non-league game against La Jolla Country Day. The Lady Aztecs are now 14-1, ahead of league play, which begins Jan. 14 at San Gabriel.
Saiki said the memory of her team’s ouster in the CIF Southern Section semifinals each of the last two seasons has not faded, and she’s using that as the motivation to finish the job. They came tantalizingly close to the finals each time, with the deciding games hinging on one or two shots that simply refused to fall.
“Oh man, I think about it every day, makes me work that much harder,” Saiki, 16, said with a heaving sigh. “My goal has always been trying to get that ring.”
The prospects are rosy for the girls, despite losing league MVP and All-CIF forward Alyson Lock and sharp-shooting Samantha Lee to graduation. Saiki this season has improved on her solid stats from 2012-13, averaging 12.1 points and 12.2 assists per game, and a point guard who’s scoring and assisting in double figures bodes well for any team.
“We don’t have Alyson, so even more now, we have to work as a team,” Saiki explained. “We need to trust each other and try to be tough. We play hard, we practice hard, we try to be energetic on defense and transition into threes. It just makes it a lot of fun.”
And, true to the trend the two have set, Kikuchi is also hitting a double-double in scoring and assists, with 11.7 points and 10.1 helpers per contest.
“Our team chemistry is good. Everybody’s close and nobody cares who’s scoring, it’s just about getting the win,” Kikuchi, also 16, said. “It kind of feels like we’re a target, everyone seems to be coming after us this year.”
Saiki and Kikuchi have, understandably, drawn a great deal of interest from college recruiters, but both were too modest to drop any names … yet. The pair are solid in the classroom as well, consistently posting A’s and B’s, though they admitted not having much love for history and physiology.
Dynasties are built over time, so any talk of that at Keppel may be premature, but if the point guard position is a bellwether for a basketball team, things are looking pretty good in eastern Alhambra. In December, Saiki and Kikuchi both earned Most Valuable Player honors at early season tournaments.
Just for good measure, Joe Kikuchi, now in his second season at the helm for the girls, was named Coach of the Year for last season by the Pasadena Star-News, and was chosen as one of the Rafu’s 2013 Sportspeople of the Year.
The young players repeatedly cited their fans and coaches for the teams’ current success. The boys are led by Hung Duong, while the girls’ staff includes former Keppel and UC Bakersfield star Krista Arase.
“With everyone around us, it’s easier to focus on working hard,” Saiki said. “It’s our teammates that make us as good as we are.”