SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. -- His team had just dismantled its season-opening opponent by 60 points and the most Kevin Kiernan had for his Mater Dei players was to "be dressed and on the court at 2:45" for practice the next day. Such is the heightened state of the No. 1 ranked high-school girls' basketball team in the nation that its coach will have to figure out a way for them to push each other harder in workouts than JSerra did Wednesday night during a real game.
Kiernan and the Monarchs, after all, have bigger fish to fry. And the boiling vat beckons. There may be 22 shopping days left until Christmas, but only 16 until the Nike Tournament of Champions, where its gauntlet of 10 other nationally ranked teams awaits Mater Dei, the defending titlists.
Then there's a trip to Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Mass., before the CIF Southern Sectional, which Kiernan calls "another national tournament" because, like the TOC, it will include national top 10 rivals Brea Olinda and Long Beach Poly.
"We're preparing to match up against the best players in the country," Kiernan said after his team's 81-21 victory over JSerra, "and the kids understand that."
If Mater Dei's itinerant schedule makes your head spin, consider the alternative -- three months of games like Wednesday night's. It was over in a blink. Eight quick steals, and when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the nation's top senior, nailed a 3-pointer with 3:46 left in the first quarter, Mater Dei already scored more points (23, to 2) than JSerra would score the entire game. For her part, Mosqueda-Lewis would finish with a game-high 18 points in barely half a night's work.
Still, there were some real blessings to be counted. Karina Alofaituli, the No. 26 ranked senior playing in her first game for the Monarchs, missed two free throws during her team's first possession, but otherwise rose to her previous billing. The blowout situation also allowed Kiernan to offer considerable time to freshman Amy Ogren, a shifty point guard who calmly drilled a pair of first-half threes and is exactly the kind of player Mater Dei needs to reveal during these early routs.
The biggest blessing of all was the return of Alexyz Vaioletama, the third of the Monarchs' three junior Olympians, along with Mosqueda-Lewis and junior Jordan Adams. Plagued by stress fractures in her shins, the USC signee and No. 14-ranked senior by ESPN HoopGurlz missed last year's national-championship season at Mater Dei, then had her summer (including a gold-medal trip with Team USA to the world championships in France) dashed by a recurrence of the injury.
"It's been a rough road for me," Vaioletama said. "Watching your teammates and not being out there with them, it gets to you."
After some early timing issues prompted a few point-blank misfires, Vaioletama played like she was making up for lost time, showing her old explosiveness around the glass at both ends of the floor. She scored 11 of her 13 points as Mater Dei rampaged to a 32-5 lead after one quarter. Vaioletama says she doesn't yet have her legs underneath her, and that will be a deliberate process, given that she is limited to nine hours of practice and game play per week, recently upped from six.
At 6-foot-1, Vaioletama is endemic of the new way Mater Dei will pursue its old way of pressuring the basketball on defense. They aren't as quick, overall, as last year, but they are longer, which, as Kiernan points out, "makes it seem like we have six people out there."
"We're a little behind where we were last year, but we'll be better later," Kiernan said. "Last year, we were really clicking in Phoenix [for the TOC], especially on defense. I'd really like us to be playing well again in Phoenix this year."
It will be a race for Mater Dei -- and until the TOC it will be a race against themselves.
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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 girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.