Updated: Feb 27, 2019
The Van Nuys girls’ basketball team sat in the stands at Roybal High School, watching Crenshaw play Hamilton for the Division-II City Section championship. Head coach Elizabeth Lezama wanted them there, even though they had been eliminated by Crenshaw a week prior, to face what “could have been.”
They could have been there had they just worked a little harder, she told them. The cheers, the adulation, the medals and the trophy at the end; that could be ours.
It was probably easy to dismiss Coach Lezama’s proddings as those of a young coach searching for ways to inspire a defeated team. After all, Van Nuys girls’ basketball has never won a City title. The school has been open since 1914 and raised not a single girls’ hoops banner.
That offseason, Van Nuys hit the weight room more often and with more intensity. They played spring, summer, and fall basketball against ranked opponents.
“They weren’t used to it,” coach “Liz” tells me of the workload via text message. She and the girls are on a bus, traveling to their CIF State playoff game against Sierra Pacific High School in Hanford. It’s about a three-hour drive -- without traffic -- and she’s had some time to reflect.
“We had seen what we had last season and worked with the talent that we had,” she said. “We started from scratch and didn’t include any transfers to win this championship. We didn’t create a superstar team. Our team was determined to work hard in the offseason and face the challenges and build the team chemistry.”
A City Section championship, the first in 105 years, is what earned them a spot in these state playoffs. It was the 43-29 defeat of Dorsey at Birmingham High School last Friday evening, a raucous crowd cheering mostly for the Wolves of Van Nuys, and medals, trophies, and accolades missed a season ago.
Lezama’s initial goal at the beginning of this basketball season was to win the Valley Mission League, which felt like a mountain of its own. San Fernando, the defending league champion, was 12-0 in Valley Mission League play a season ago, with two close wins over the Wolves.
But in 2019 Van Nuys sprinted to a perfect 10-0 record in league, often with victory margins of 30 points or more. Suddenly, this felt like a team with more than just league-title aspirations. Lezama preached a “trust the process” mentality, urging her young team to stay focused on the tasks ahead. But it was easy to believe this team could be Van Nuys’ drought-ender.
Sure enough, they were. On the strength of their tenacious defense, the Wolves blew out Middle College, San Pedro, and Marshall in the City Section playoffs. They then faced Dorsey in the Division-II City Section final and the Dons never really had a chance. Senior Roselyn Poommai finished with 13 points, but more aptly, 11 steals. And for much of the game, it sounded like they were playing in front of their home fans.
“Having a loud fan base on Friday was the best,” Lezama said. “We felt like we were at home. Having our administrators, teachers, staff, students, families, our amazing marching band and cheer was amazing. We were very happy to have such a fan base support.”
For the Wolves, even a long bus ride to a small town feels like victory. Lezama knows the difficulty of building a program at Van Nuys; as a player from 2005-2009, the girls basketball team went a combined 10-45 and made the playoffs just once. But now in her second year as the head coach at her alma mater, the story couldn’t be more different.
“We want to continue to build up from where we started,” Lezama said. “Continue to be successful and have a great program where students actually want to come to Van Nuys: for academics and sports. We want our student athletes to earn scholarships and go places to have future opportunities.
“It feels great to give back to my community and be the first coaches to ever do it,” she said. “It means a lot to me because it’s my first of many of my career. It’s what I want to continue to do for my future.”
Van Nuys is in good hands.