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Spotlight on SoCal's basketball powers

Long Beach Poly, Brea Olinda and Mater Dei are major powerbrokers in high school basketball. Rajat Khullar/ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When you are the No. 1 team in the land, you'd think there wouldn't be much to occupy your mind much beyond simply continuing the flow of winning, conquering and celebrating. But try being No. 1, and having No. 2 just down the road. And try blotting out the fact that No. 2 beat you once during each of the past two seasons.

You think Alexyz Vaioletama and her Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) teammates don't ponder or talk about Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.)?

"We do," says Vaioletama, herself the No. 14 prospect in the 2011 class and a USC signee.

Often?

"Often," Vaioletama confirms.

How often?

"Every day," Vaioletama says.

The feeling is mutual. Jeff Sink, the head girls' basketball coach at Brea Olinda, devotes part of every practice to Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly.

Sink is in his 17th season at Brea, long the big dawgs of Orange County, but recently rendered the Avis of the national high-school girls' basketball ranks (as in, "we're No. 2 and we try harder"). For all these 17 years, this has been Sink's way. It just so happens that No. 1 Mater Dei and No. 10 Long Beach Poly both are minutes away.

"We know there are some teams out there that we'll probably play, so we deal with them in every practice," said Sink, whose team is second in the Powerade Fab 50 for girls' basketball. "We watch them every day. They are both very difficult teams to play. If we prepare for the two best teams we'll ever face, we should do well against everyone else and should play against those two teams with some confidence.

"This may be the best team I've ever had; that of course remains to be seen. When you're ranked in the top five in the country, you hope the other teams are from places like Kentucky, Georgia or Massachusetts, not down the road. It's a lot of pressure."

One installment of the local-national, SoCal round robin has been played out. Sink's Ladycats beat the aptly monickered Jackrabbits of Long Beach by a closer-than-it-seems 60-53 count almost two weeks ago in a packed and energized Brea gym. The show moves later this week to Chandler, Ariz., home of the Nike Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious high-school event in the country. All three Golden State powerhouses are entered. Last year, they and St. Mary's of Stockton made the TOC semifinals an all-Cali affair.

Later this season, Brea, Mater Dei and Poly will compete in the same CIF Southern Sectional, turning that into, as Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan puts it, "another national tournament."

Anyone who believes that the recently California-hijacked team and player rankings are the product of some conspiratorial, reverse-East-Coast bias is looking at it all wrong. Here, in the shadow of Mickey Mouse's neighborhood, the people are not exactly wall to wall, but the cars, almost everywhere you go, are bumper to bumper. And in each car is at least one person, meaning, you may not see them all, but there are a lot of people in these parts.

The southern portion of Los Angeles County is the most heavily urbanized area in the country. Neighboring Orange County, home to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, among so many other things, is the sixth most populous county in the U.S. Nestled in this densely populated area is for opponents a Bermuda's Triangle of high-school girls' basketball, with Long Beach Poly to the west, Brea Olinda to the northeast and Mater Dei anchoring the southern tip in Santa Ana.

To be surprised that three elite programs could coexist in such a relatively small but people-packed geographical area is to be surprised that a similar situation could exist in, say, Metro New York, which annually gets national love from Christ the King, Murry Bergtraum and now Nazareth Regional -- as well as across the Hudson from the likes of Neptune, Shabazz and Trenton Catholic.

The California schools have been at the top of the cycle in recent years (Mater Dei being the defending "national high-school" champions) and have added distinctive layers of competitive excitement.

Already this year, Kiernan's Monarchs were upset by Poly in a preseason non-counter that nonetheless ignited some fear and loathing in the halls of Mater Dei, already a complicated witches brew of jealousy and drama. No one expects the Monarchs to even lose a game of checkers because they boast three junior Olympians in Vaioletama, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a Connecticut signee and top-ranked senior in the country, and Jordan Adams, one of the top five prospects in the 2012 class. Those three were joined this year by transfer Karina Alofaituli, an Arizona State signee ranked No. 26 in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100 for 2011.

Poly coach Carl Buggs downplayed his team's triumph, writing the encounter off as little more than an exhibition.

"It was the fall," Buggs said. "It didn't mean anything. I look at all the good things Mater Dei did and have to give it to them. We shot the ball well against them, and they didn't shoot the ball very well."

If nothing else, the result plastered Poly through the Hatfields-and-McCoys mindset that pervades the region because of the close Brea-Mater Dei rivalry. Not that anyone forgets the Jackrabbits. Mater Dei, after all, had to rally to overcome Poly 66-60 and advance to the Tournament of Champions title game last year.

"Poly is fearless," Kiernan said. "They just play the way they play and dare you to keep up."

Sink said, "Poly is a team of superb athletes that goes 15 deep. You have to be disciplined against them. If you can rebound with them, you have a chance because then you can control the tempo a little better. Their style is different than any team we will play."

Understated to begin with, Buggs has little to say about possible matchups against Mater Dei or Brea, or whether his team unfairly gets overshadowed by the two. He says his focus remains on "the team directly in front of us."

His supremely talented point guard, Ariya Crook-Williams, the No. 16 prospect who will join Vaioletma at USC next fall, is similarly tight-lipped. However, she did admit that she persevered over a hugely inflamed left hip during a game she otherwise would not have played against Brea this season. Crook-Williams said, like her coach, she doesn't put much thought into her highly ranked neighbors, but admits, "I do feel the hype."

The hype would reach a fever pitch in anticipation of a Brea-Mater Dei engagement in either the championship of the TOC (they are seeded on opposite ends of the bracket) or, for a third straight year, in the CIF Southern California Division II Regional finals. The Monarchs were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 when the Ladycats knocked them off 44-38 in 2008. The loss stung so badly, Kiernan had the score etched on a plaque that hung in the Mater Dei team room for a year. That didn't help jog Monarch memories much as Brea beat Mater Dei, again unbeaten and No. 1, 47-43 in the Tony Matson Classic last January. The Monarchs finally got a measure of revenge, beating Brea 51-46 in last year's regional final.

The rivalry added another dimension when Taylor Spears, a significant hit of speed in the backcourt, transferred mid-season from Mater Dei to Brea Olinda for what she says were "basketball and financial reasons." Eligible to play for Brea this season, Spears says the rivalry looks dramatically different from each side.

"When I played at Mater Dei, we looked at Brea as a team we could beat easily," Spears said. "Now that I'm at Brea, we know Mater Dei can beat us and we need to play as well as we can to have a chance. The girls here are not big-headed; I've not met one who is. It's just a different group of girls here. They want to win, but they are not cocky. At Mater Dei, they are used to having success, expect it, and so there are some cocky girls there."

The fact that Mater Dei has been unable to shed the role of overwhelming favorite, in spite of the two losses to Brea, continues to weigh heavily on the Monarchs.

"We've been the greatest thing that's happened to Brea," Kiernan said. "They've been able to play the underdog role for the past three years because we've received a little more attention, media-wise. They've never been the underdog before. Brea has been the team everyone wants to beat, that everyone has feared or hated. It's a tough position to be in. We've relieved them of that pressure. Jeff owes me."

Sink readily concedes the point, saying, "We've played that to the hilt the last two years. I feel for them. Brea's been amazing. We've been good for a long time, but I do like hiding in the woods. We can go into a game against Mater Dei and they will have a little more pressure on them because of who they are. I want them to be like Yoda on top of the mountain. We'll be happy just to trek up the mountain and play with them."

Such an encounter would be intriguing, the extra curriculars aside. Brea traditionally has elite perimeter players, but Mater Dei has the premier outside player in Mosqueda-Lewis. The Wildcats on the other hand have the second-best post in the class in UCLA-bound Justine Hartman, No. 7 overall in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100, and a more-than-able inside companion in Amber VanDeudekom
. The Monarchs have one of the best starting units ever assembled on the high-school level, but both Brea and Long Beach Poly are deeper. Mater Dei has length galore, but Brea has more backcourt quickness and an indispensible, do-everything wing in Keitra Wallace.

Throw in two of the country's best coaches, and a Ladycats-Monarchs matchup is a microcosm of all components that have guided the dizzying development of high-school girls' basketball.

Most everyone in the area believes another Brea-Mater Dei pairing is inevitable this season. If and when it happens, it will be as seismic as anything that's shaken Southern California in a while.

Ready?

"I'm ready to play them," Spears said of her former teammates.

Or not?

"If I didn't have to play Brea, I wouldn't," Adams said. "If we lose, all hell is going to break loose."

In a lot of ways, it already has.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.