By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
(Published Feb. 6, 2016)
It’s the kind of tabloid fodder you never, ever, want to be involved with your team. A scandal involving coaches and players and inappropriate relationships.
That, however, is precisely what faces the Mark Keppel High girls basketball team during the offseason, and the fallout has been nothing short of a complete dismantling of one of the area’s premier prep basketball programs.
“It was a little bumpy at first,” said Keppel senior guard Sydne Kaku, following the team’s 63-40 win this week over San Gabriel.
“I think at the beginning of the season, we started out by losing a few games, but we were really bonding,” Kaku explained. “I think that helped make us a better team by putting a spotlight on our weak points.”
The weak points haven’t been showing much lately. The Lady Aztecs are marching toward the playoffs with a record of 16-7 overall, and at 7-0 in the Almont League, they’re on track for their sixth straight unbeaten year in conference games. Last year, they went all the way to the State finals.
After last season, Keppel was looking at some hard choices, with four of their five starters graduating. The team was looking to build around high-scoring forward Sophia Song, a sound strategy for a team that had constructed a solid program with a pipeline of underclass talent.
Then, the bottom fell out.
It was a shock out of the stratosphere for some, no surprise for others, and it might end with a day of reckoning for at least one.
In September, head coach Joe Kikuchi, credited with crafting the Keppel program into an area powerhouse, abruptly resigned. Days later, he was arrested and charged with carrying on a sexual relationship with one of his underaged players. The next pre-trial hearing in his case comes up later this month.
The school and the district wasted no time of purging themselves of any connection to the scandal. Keppel’s principal and vice principal were placed on leave and ultimately reassigned to other locations within the district.
All of Kikuchi’s assistant coaches, including talented Keppel alum and former Cal State Bakersfield star Krista Arase, are also gone.
The unenviable task of taking the reins of the shattered program fell to former South El Monte High skipper Jose Herrera, known to several of the players and parents through his coaching of club teams.
“My job, initially, was to make sure the wheels didn’t completely come off the bus,” he said. “It was tough staying consistent at the beginning. Many people don’t realize that we had an extremely tough pre-season schedule. We played teams like Serra, El Camino Real and Alemany, some of the top teams in the state.”
Herrera said the grueling early schedule helped his girls cut their teeth right out of the gate, exposing them to the kind of competition they’ll face in the playoffs.
“I have 16 players on this roster, and that’s a real challenge, to get them all enough playing time and experience,” he said, “But it’s been working, and in the playoffs, you never know if someone’s going to go down [with an injury]and we’ll have someone else ready to step up.”
The mood at Keppel’s home games is unmistakably altered. The crowds have been smaller, quieter, perhaps still in shock over the offseason turmoil. But the team’s performance has spoken volumes about their resiliency and their continued ability to play some great basketball.
“We noticed that any time we felt like we weren’t bonding, we’d plan to do something together, like going out to eat after games,” Kaku said. “That, I think, has really helped us. You know, the better you are off the court, the better you play on the court.”