Verdugo Hills claims third Straight City Championship
Verdugo Hills girls’ varsity basketball coach Kevin Peterson-Henry laid out four goals at the beginning of the season that he thought his team could achieve. Winning 20 games in a season was the first goal, seeing as no girl’s squad had ever accomplished it in the history of the program. The second goal was to finish atop the East Valley League for the second consecutive season. The third goal was to improve their position in the city rankings, and the last and final goal was to win a city championship for the third consecutive season. Heading into the Division II championship game at Roybal, the Dons had hit the mark on two of the first three goals on that list. At 21-10, the girls' hard work and consistency had paid off with their first 20-win campaign. Although losses to Arleta and Poly prevented them from winning the East Valley, their tough non-conference schedule certainly improved their standing as the team was slotted as the top seed in Division II. The final goal on the list was the city championship. But a team that they had seen already this season was standing in the way.
The Chatsworth Chancellors arrived at Roybal led by their dominant interior player Emily Cuevas, a 6-foot-tall Center who controls the interior glass and made life difficult for Verdugo Hills when the teams met at The Barn earlier in the season. Right out of the gate, history began to repeat itself as the Chancellors were all over the glass, particularly on the offensive end, creating a ton of second chance shots in the first quarter. To counteract Cuevas’s impact on the game, the Dons made a concerted effort to get Morriah Mbachu touches in the paint early to force the Chatsworth inside force into early foul trouble. Cuevas was up for the challenge and remained sound defensively. Despite the Dons defense making life difficult for the Chancellors’ offense, their dominance on the boards early kept them in the contest. The contest was tight at the start, but a patented scoring burst by the Dons ignited by their defense pushed them to a 12-5 advantage. A noticeable change in Chatsworth’s strategy on the offensive end late in the period was to switch to a high pick and roll with Cuevas as the screener, to pull Mbachu out from under the basket to try and create easier looks inside. It did not result in much success, as the Dons ability to switch all five positions on the floor kept Chatsworth’s guards in check. “Morriah had such a difficult time dealing with Cuevas when we played them in December,” said Coach Peterson-Henry on his center’s efforts against a tough matchup. “She did such an outstanding job today. It was very impressive.” The Chancellors ultimately shot 2-14 from the field in the quarter with their only made field goals coming from the three-point arch. Their defense kept them in the game despite the lackluster offensive start, as they held the Dons to 5-13 from the field, and they only trailed 12-8 at the end of the first quarter.
The physical nature of the contest continued into the second quarter as both teams began to pile up fouls. Senior co-captain Ayana Peterson-Henry led the way for the Dons as she asserted herself early in the period looking to get her teammates involved. Her fellow co-captains in Moriah Mosley and Nicole Vanegas picked it up offensively for the Dons, accounting for 10 of the team’s 11 points in the quarter. Despite continuing to struggle on the offensive end, the Chancellors defense and guile on the boards allowed them to absorb punches from Verdugo and hang tough in the contest. “They were very tough. We knew they hit the offensive boards hard and that was going to be a challenge,” said Peterson-Henry on the grit of their championship opponent. “We didn’t know they would play that tough defensively. When they took the press off, they really tightened down on us.” Cuevas and Mbachu continued to battle on the glass as both players pulled down 5 rebounds for their respective squads in the quarter. A pivotal moment came near the end of the first half, when Vanegas knocked down a three-pointer to extend the Dons lead going into the break. The Chancellors hit a free throw in the final second to chip at the halftime lead, but the Dons were ahead at the break 23-15.
Chatsworth had no intention of going down without a fight, and similarly to what they faced in the semifinal against San Pedro, the Dons would have to absorb a body blow right away as the Chancellors attempted to get back into the contest. Chatsworth forward Cyrielley Becerra attacked the basket and connected on a layup, plus the foul out of the gate. Junior guard Madison Guerrero began to find her offense in the third quarter knocking down a mid-range jump shot. Vanegas met this challenge head on and spearheaded the Verdugo attack, including a sequence midway through the period where she and Guerrero traded three-point baskets. Peterson-Henry left her imprint on the period, knocking down two crucial layups during a period when Chatsworth were finding success offensively. She also came up with a chase down block on a play in which Chatsworth had what appeared to be a layup off a steal that would have cut Verdugo’s lead down from 5 to a single possession. Verdugo showed their championship mettle in the closing minutes of the period when, after Guerrero made a basket to cut the Dons lead back to 8, two baskets in quick succession to bring the Dons lead back to double-digits. Mbachu was a force in the closing minutes of the quarter, including a sequence where she came up with a steal, and threw a perfect outlet pass to Peterson-Henry for an easy layup. Chatsworth was still hanging tough, but despite their best quarter so far, the Dons led 39-28 heading into the final period of play.
Championships aren’t awarded, they are earned. The Dons still had work to do heading into the final frame, and the Chancellors let them know right out of the gate that they did not intend on lying down. Emily Cuevas came out aggressive to begin the quarter, pinning Mbachu under the basket and getting her first easy baskets of the game. The Chancellors came out pressing the Dons full court, and after a careless turnover and easy layup for Chatsworth, The Dons had to call a timeout following a quick 6-2 run by the Chancellors. For the first time all game the Dons looked to show nerves. Chatsworth was making their final push to steal the game, but Dons junior co-captain Nicole Vanegas showed that she was ready to take control and carry the team when they needed her offensive heroics. After the Chancellors cut the deficit, Vanegas would go on to score 10 of the team’s final 12 points of the game, including a big three to break Chatsworth’s momentum and push the lead back to 10. Vanegas answered Chatsworth free throws with another long-range dagger to bolster the advantage. After Guerrero hit a three-pointer to cut into the deficit, Vanegas came right back with a coast-to-coast layup to extend the lead back to 9. “She has become such a big-time playmaker. I knew she was going to get free because they had to change their defense,” said Peterson-Henry on Vanegas’s play down the stretch of the fourth quarter. “In the first half they tried to take her away, but the middle was so open. They had to close our driving lanes so that was going to result in her getting more shots. I just asked her to be patient because it was going to come. Those were major plays for us.”
Chatsworth had emptied the tank attempting to come back. Now, fully exhausted and trailing 51-43, their body language had the look of a squad that had fought valiantly to claim a championship of their own, but knew the end was inevitable. After Mbachu closed the show with a late rebound and putback to extend the lead to 53-43, freshman guard Lilly Opper dribbled out the clock and the Verdugo Hills Dons were Division II city champions.
The victory wraps up a successful city-campaign for the Dons who will now turn their attention to the State Championships. As a reward for a brilliant city-section season that saw the team rack up a program-best 22 wins and a championship, Verdugo Hills will be the top seed in the Southern Region of Division V when the state tournament begins. “Our girls were so impressive all year and in these playoffs. Our starting five were outstanding and we got big plays from all of them,” said Peterson-Henry, reflecting on the team’s accomplishments before looking at what lies ahead. “Now we’re going to work to win a state game, something we haven’t been able to do. I think we’re better prepared this year than ever.”
The top-seeded Dons first opponent will be the 16 seeded Workman Lobos out of City of Industry. The Lobos finished third in the Montview League this season before going on a run that culminated with a defeat in the 5A semifinals of the CIF Southern-Section playoffs to eventual champion Price. The team is led by senior guard Heidi Ochoa, who led the team this season averaging 14.8 points per game.
The Dons will look to keep their successful season going when the squads jump it up on March 1st at 6pm at Arleta High School.