BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Mater Dei High School of Santa Ana, Calif., has spent the whole year answering tough challenges, most self-imposed but not all anticipated. After leaping one last hurdle, beating Carondelet 58-43 in the California CIF Division II state championship game on Friday night, the Monarchs faced a question whose answer they had no control: Are they now the No. 1 high-school girls' basketball team in the country?
Heading into the CIF championships, at least one poll had Mater Dei No. 1, while a couple others had it second behind St. Mary's of Stockton, Calif., a team it defeated in December to win the biggest national test of the year, the Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz. St. Mary's plays on Saturday for a CIF Division III title, but the Monarchs, no surprise, strongly believe they made a case to support a top national ranking.
"Yeah I really do," Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan said when asked if he thought his team should be No. 1. "... We beat St. Mary's. ... We beat Long Beach Poly, we beat Harvard Westlake who won a state championship (and) we beat St. Anthony's who is playing for a state championship. All these teams have won a state championship and we've beaten them all. We beat Brea (Olinda). We played the best teams in the country. We played Chicago Whitney Young in February. You know you can make a case for St. Mary's because they're a great team but I think we are (No. 1)."
Mater Dei played a difficult, national schedule, so its path to a mythical national championship wasn't supposed to be easy. But the degree of difficulty increased as the season progressed.
The team has been without one of its three USA Basketball U16 National Team members, Alexyz Vaioletama, who has missed the entire season with injury. In late December Mater Dei also lost senior starter Lauren Rock to injury. The Monarchs also were plagued much of the season with internal jealousies that culminated with sophomore Taylor Spears, a key contributor who helped the team win the Nike TOC with her solid play, transferring to Brea Olinda during the middle of the season.
"I've been coaching for 20 years and this is the toughest year I've ever had, and I think my assistants will back me up on that," Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan said. "We've been through a lot of stuff this year -- adversity, self-inflicted stuff, drama, you name it we had it."
Despite the drama, injuries and subtractions the team still won. The team's lone loss on the season came on January 18, to archrival Brea Olinda, a defeat the Monarchs avenged in the sectional championship game for the trip to state.
It likely was another huge hit of adversity that pulled the Monarchs together. On Feb. 25, Mater Dei senior Brianne Matthews committed suicide, shocking her family and the entire Mater Dei community. Matthews was a star softball player at Mater Dei who had a scholarship lined up to the University of Arizona.
"I think the passing of Brianne Matthews was a pivotal point because the girls kind of rallied around that and they came together in their grief. They needed each other," Kiernan said. "It really had nothing to do with basketball, just as a Mater Dei student and a friend of Brianne Matthews they came together and I think they learned that there's some things in life not worth worrying about. There's a bigger picture out there and I think they enjoy each other much more now.
"The way they are now, regardless of the wins and losses, I enjoy coming to practice every day," Kiernan added. "I enjoy coaching these guys. ... They've done an amazing job of coming together, not sweating the small stuff and being there for each other."
The adversity bug popped up in the championship game against Carondelet, almost as expected, given the team's season. Despite holding a decent lead and despite what was perhaps the most confusing, and for Carondelet disheartening, 48 seconds of play during which the Cougars' star player Erica Payne picked up three personal fouls and was disqualified for rest of the game, the team fell in a funk.
The Monarchs managed just five points in the third period in large part because Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the team's leading scorer and one of the nation's best players, picked up her fourth foul and sat almost the entire period. Carondelet would cut what had been a 17-point Mater Dei halftime lead to as little as six points before Mosqueda-Lewis righted the ship early in the fourth quarter.
The Monrachs rallied in the fourth quarter without their top gun, Mosqueda-Lewis who fouled out with 21 points. Jessica Duarte was four of four from the floor in the final eight minutes and finished with 19 points. Jordan Adams hit a back-breaking pull-up jumper from the left elbow and Shayla Batson sealed the by making a shot from her knees from the short corner after falling over.
One last time, Mater Dei revealed its character when challenged. The payoff, the Monarchs believe, should be recognition as best in the nation.
"I think we deserve everything we've gotten so far. We've worked so hard and we've come through a lot of adversity," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "I mean we won the TOC our first year in the top division, we beat Brea and we beat a lot of great teams so I think we deserve it all."
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.