For many fans of prep basketball, 2013 was the year of the improbable, and two local figures were front and center in making the impossible dream reality.
In just his first year as head coach of the Mark Keppel High School girls team, Joe Kikuchi not only transformed his squad into contenders, but served notice that the Lady Aztecs were nothing short of the next great Almont League dynasty.
Guiding a team that featured Alyson Lock, Lauren Saiki and Samantha Lee, the 27-7 Lady Aztecs went undefeated in the Almont League and made an exciting run deep into the postseason, reaching the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.
Keppel didn’t have the luxury of a weak schedule, either. In addition to league teams like La Cañada, they also took on squads from Alemany, West Torrance and in the playoffs, JW North.
“I am gratified for the fact that my girls are now recognized,” Kikuchi told The Rafu Shimpo in April, after he was honored as the girls’ basketball coach of the year
by The Pasadena Star-News. “When I am recognized, they are recognized and vice versa.”
Kikuchi served as an assist Varsity coach for the 2011-12 season, and as the JV head coach before then. he said that following some of his former JV players as they developed through the program made a huge difference.
“Two years ago, I coached three of the girls on my JV team who were big factors on this team,” He said. “These girls knew my style of coaching along with Alyson and Leslie [Tan]. We used our speed and our defense to make the system work. Our remedy was playing harder than our opponents. We had to, since we were under-sized even over the previous year.”
Hardly missing a beat from where they left off last season, Keppel’s girls have begun the 2013-14 season with a spotless record of 14 wins without a loss.
“You usually hear about the same powerhouse schools,” Kikuchi said in April. “I want to say that I am proud to help put Keppel and the shorter teams on the map as a leader.”
After her Culver City team saw their season come to an end in the first round of the CIF State tournament with a loss to Granada Hills in March, senior Taylor Tanita refused to hang her head.
“We lost 10 seniors from last year, so we weren’t supposed to be anywhere close to this,” she told The Rafu with a great deal of pride. “I’m just happy with the way our team came together, and we came together when it counted the most.”
Sharing the floor with teammates Kelsey Ueda, Kate Suyetsugu, Kelli Tademaru and her kid sister Lindsey, Tanita was named the Ocean League’s most valuable player, despite standing just short of 5-foot-5.
“Taylor is a true point guard who has a tremendous feel for the game and excellent instincts,” said Heidi VanDerveer, head coach at UC San Diego, where Tanita was recruited and signed to play this season.
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo