OCC’S LADY PIRATES FASHION A BASKETBALL SEASON TO REMEMBER
Thursday, December 14, 2006
By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
It was the kind of season that comes along once in a coach’s career…if he or she is lucky!
It was the 2002-03 California community college women’s basketball campaign.
Coach Mike Thornton’s Orange Coast College Lady Pirates were expected to be good that year, with six returning sophomores from a team that went 25-9 in 2001-02 and reached the regional finals before losing on a last-second shot.
But, realistically, how good could they really be? They were, after all, “Girls of the O.C.”
“For a number of years prior to that season I’d attended state championship games as a spectator, and had many conversations with my coaching friends,” says Mike Thornton, now in his 18th season as OCC’s head women’s basketball coach. “Though we’d been deep into the state tournament on several occasions, my colleagues would elbow me and say, ‘You’ll never get to the next level – a state championship – until you start recruiting out of your area. You always have good teams, but you’ll never be a state champion playing with local kids who aren’t serious about basketball.’”
Thornton didn’t buy that argument, and he ultimately proved it wrong.
His 2002-03 team was comprised of 11 players from Orange County, and a 12th –who was a reserve and played in 23 of 37 games – from Modesto. The Pirates went 31-6 that year, and beat Merced, Ventura and Contra Costa at the state tournament in San Diego. It was a brilliant campaign, but more about that later.
“Before we won the state title, our teams had the reputation of consisting solely of rich kids from the O.C.,” Thornton said. “Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the reputation stuck.”
Like bubble gum to the bottom of your shoe!
“Our 2002-03 team dispelled that notion. They were hardworking, blue-collar kids who fit well together and enjoyed each other immensely. They were a pleasure to coach. We didn’t have a single discipline problem all year. They were also very cerebral…the most intelligent team I’ve ever coached.”
Among the group of six returning sophomores was 5-5 point guard Nancy Hatsushi, an All-Orange Empire Conference performer as a freshman. Hatsushi had averaged 10.3 points per game her frosh season, and logged 3.2 assists per outing. She led the 2001-02 team with 74 three-point baskets, and had a flossy 44.8 shooting percentage from behind the arc.
Her 2002-03 stats proved equally impressive: 10.3 points per game; 5.0 assists; 80 three-point baskets; and a 44.2 three-point shooting percentage.
Other returning sophomores included guards Lindsay Galasso and Leigh Marshall, six-foot center, Lauren Murray, and forwards Liz Mendoza and Candice Quiroz.
“We had two legitimate point guards that year – Nancy and Lindsay,” Thornton says. “I recruited them both out of high school as point guards, and both were on the floor at the same time for us most of the time. That gave us a huge advantage. Pressing teams couldn’t fluster us. We had the best backcourt tandem in the state.”
Thornton did a potentially disastrous thing before the season started.
“Liz Mendoza had been our sixth player as a freshman, and Candice Quiroz was a starting forward. I decided to switch their roles in 2002-03. I felt that Liz needed to be in the starting lineup – she’d matured tremendously as a player – and Candace was a great sparkplug off the bench. They accepted their new roles with grace…we didn’t have a single problem. That proved crucial to our success.”
Mendoza ended up being OCC’s leading scorer that season with a 13.1 average. At 5-11, she was the Pirates’ number three rebounder.
Loren Murray was the Bucs’ starting center for the second year in a row. Six-footer, Alisa Carrillo, at the other forward position, was OCC’s only starting freshman. Carrillo averaged 12.6 points per game.
“We need to mentally hang in there one game at a time,” Thornton observed just prior to the season opener. “I don’t know if we have one superstar player, but we have a bunch of good, solid players.”
His assessment was dead-on.
The Pirates indeed had no superstars, just a dozen gutsy, aggressive, hustling players who dove on the floor for loose balls, and who loved each other. They knew what it took to win. The Lady Pirates learned how to step it up when the situation called for it. “One Heartbeat”…was their mantra.
“That sophomore group, which had been recruited in 2001, was the best recruiting class I’d ever had to that point,” Thornton says. “They were something special.”
But, candidly, Thornton admits it was not the most talented team of the 18 he’s coached at OCC.
“They weren’t the most talented, but they had the best chemistry. Our 1993 team, which went 27-6 and lost in overtime to Hancock in the Elite Eight, was our most talented group. Two players from that squad went on to play Division I basketball, and eight played at the four-year level. Our 2000 team, which also went 27-6 and reached the regional finals, was our second most talented. Our 2002-03 team probably ranks third.”
But the 2002-03 Pirates were special, and unlike any other squad in Orange Coast College annals.
OCC opened the season with an impressive 84-58 romp over Allan Hancock College in the opening round of OCC’s Tip-Off Tournament. But the Pirates were quickly brought back to earth in the second tourney contest, losing to San Joaquin Delta College, 70-59. The Pirates shot just 19 percent from the floor in the first half.
“We didn’t play well, but we lost to a good team,” Thornton said.
Delta ended up 28-7 for the season and reached the third round of the state playoffs.
The Pirates bounced back the following afternoon to top Mt. San Antonio College for third place in the tournament standings. Freshman forward Alisa Carrillo scored 22 points and Liz Mendoza added 18 to give the Bucs a 68-54 victory.
The Pirates beat Santa Barbara the following week, 60-53, but fell to Cerritos, 64-44. Though it was still early, Thornton was worried about his team’s lack of consistency. The Bucs were 3-2 on the season.
Thornton’s squad next hammered San Jose City College, 60-41, in the opening round of the Tournament of Champions at Ventura College. The Bucs shocked two-time defending state champ, Ventura, in the semifinals, 53-48. It was Ventura’s first loss in 41 games. The Pirates (of Ventura) were 7-0 and ranked number one in the state going into the contest.
“That game gave us lots of confidence,” Thornton says today. “Everybody thought Ventura was the team to beat in the state. Frankly, I didn’t think there was one dominant team on the horizon that year. I thought there were about 10, which, if they played well at the right time, could win the state title. I included us in that group.”
The victory over Ventura in the Tournament of Champions was huge in determining how the remainder of OCC’s season would play out.
“Ventura ended up 33-3 that year, and we accounted for two of their three losses,” Thornton says. “That first victory – in their gym – convinced our kids that we could play with the best. A win over an excellent team in a hostile environment did wonders for our self-esteem.”
The night after the emotional victory over Ventura OCC was flat and fell to Contra Costa in the tournament’s title game, 69-63. The Pirates would play the Comets three-and-a-half months later for the state championship, and they’d atone for their sub-par performance.
OCC was now an unremarkable 5-3 on the young season, but the rest of the state had taken notice of the fact that the Pirates were beating good teams.
The following week, Orange Coast College swept to the title of the 19th annual Cuesta Invitational Tournament at Cuesta College, beating Allan Hancock, 78-61, Bakersfield, 58-43, and Cuesta, 73-35.
The Bucs beat San Diego Mesa, 73-49, to up their record to 9-3, then hosted the 12th annual eight-team Coast Christmas Classic in Peterson Gym. The Pirates routed Chaffey in the opening round, 61-33, and topped Southwestern in the semis, 78-67.
That set up a classic duel with Orange Empire Conference rival, Saddleback, for the tournament title. OCC went into the tournament championship contest with an 11-3 season record, and the Gauchos were 11-1. Saddleback was ranked among the elite teams in the state.
The Pirates turned in a near flawless effort and buried the Gauchos, 73-53. Alisa Carrillo scored 22 points and Nancy Hatsushi added 19. Orange Empire Conference railbirds predicted that OCC and Saddleback would duke it out for the conference title. Surprisingly, Orange Coast would not beat the Gauchos again that season, but the Pirates would prevail in the end, winning the state title. Ulysses S. Grant lost a number of battles, too, but won the war! OCC’s “body of work” that season was more important than its individual wins and losses.
Orange Coast extended its winning streak to eight games with an 81-23 clubbing of Rio Hondo a couple of days after Christmas. The Pirates then beat Chaffey College, 54-34, and hammered Southwestern, 68-50.
It was now January 8 and the Lady Pirates prepared to open Orange Empire Conference play. The Bucs owned a 10-game winning streak and a 15-3 season record. They were ranked among the top teams in the state.
Orange Coast smashed Santa Ana in the conference opener, 75-39, then jumped out to a 30-13 halftime lead and cruised to a 55-47 victory over Riverside. Liz Mendoza tallied 20 points as Coast beat rugged Irvine Valley in the Irvine gym, 71-46. OCC blew the Lasers out in the first half, 44-20.
Thornton’s team then topped Cypress 45-42, and clipped archrival, Golden West, 69-40. The Pirates seemed to be on a roll. They were owners of a perfect 5-0 conference record, a 20-3 season mark and a 15-game winning streak.
That set up what was seen as a major showdown. The Bucs would have to deal with the formidable Saddleback Gauchos in the Saddleback gym. The Gauchos were 5-0 in conference play and 19-2 on the year.
Saddleback jumped out to a commanding 19-point first half lead and never looked back, rolling to a convincing 75-45 victory. The Lady Pirates were never in it. What on earth had gone wrong?
“They were hungrier than we were,” a somber Thornton summarized after the game was over. “They came out aggressive and we didn’t respond.”
Saddleback coach, Fentriss Winn, said his squad had been out to prove something. They wanted to demonstrate that they were the best women’s team in the state. Point well taken!
But, like General Grant, Thornton refused to believe the war was over. Important battles lay ahead, and the assault on Richmond was yet to come.
“We knew we could get better, and we knew there was a lot of season left to be played,” Thornton said later that year. “The loss to Saddleback stung, but we were going to keep going.”
The Pirates nipped Fullerton the following week, 68-61, to close out the first round of Orange Empire Conference play. Coast was in second place with a 6-1 record, and was 21-4 on the year.
The Bucs opened the second round by crushing Santa Ana, 88-27, and beat Riverside, 66-59.
Then came what, at first, appeared to be a staggering blow. Irvine Valley College hung around and hung around, and upset the Pirates with a jump shot at the buzzer in Peterson Gym, 54-53. OCC’s players seemed stunned. They hadn’t expected to lose at home to IVC. Later, however, it was determined that Irvine Valley had used an ineligible player. The stumble for the Bucs was merely a hiccup. The Lasers were forced to forfeit the victory, and OCC was 9-1 in conference play and 24-3 on the year.
OCC beat Cypress and Golden West the following week to up their slate to 11-1 and 26-4. Then, the Pirates had a mild late-season swoon, losing two games in a row. Those would be their final loses of the season.
Saddleback topped the Pirates in Peterson Gymnasium, 64-55, to clinch the Orange Empire Conference title. The Gauchos were 27-2 and 13-0; the Pirates were 26-5 and 11-2.
“We made some mistakes that we can’t make if we want to beat a good team,” Thornton told the media after the game. “But a lot of it can be attributed to them. They’re as good a defensive unit as I’ve seen in my 15 years here.”
OCC fell to Fullerton two days later, 52-49, to conclude the regular season at 26-6 and 11-3.
“The losses to Saddleback and Fullerton hurt,” Thornton says today. “We played badly against Fullerton. I was worried. We seemed to have lost our swagger, and I wasn’t certain we could get it back.”
Something else worried Thornton.
“I thought the losses might hurt our seeding in the playoffs. A top four seed was necessary to insure home games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. If we were seeded fifth or lower, we’d be playing on the road.”
The Pirates managed a fourth seed, and were guaranteed two home games if they won the first.
Twelve days following the regular season finale, Coast played Cerritos College in the first round of the playoffs. OCC had lost to the Falcons in November by 20 points, 64-44. The Lady Pirates entered the contest with a 26-6 record; Cerritos was 20-11.
Thornton told the media that the 12-day post-conference rest had rejuvenated his charges.
“We were flat in that last game against Fullerton,” he said. “We needed the practice time to recuperate mentally and physically, and I think we’ll be in good shape. We’ve come a long way since our loss to Cerritos in November. We haven’t even talked about that game.
“But, we could come out and lay an egg or we could play well. We seem to have developed a sense of urgency. One or two bad possessions could make the difference and we seem to realize that in practice.”
The Pirates didn’t lay an egg.
OCC jumped out to an early 12-3 lead, but Cerritos came back to grab a two point halftime advantage, 25-23. Cerritos had a 46-45 lead with 2:52 to play, but the Lady Pirates ran off eight points in a row and ended up winning, 55-47.
“I was worried when we trailed 46-45 because the biggest problem we’ve had all year long is finishing teams off when we have the opportunity to put them away,” Thornton told reporters.
“We challenged our team during a timeout and I felt like we wanted the game. We came down and made some tough shots.”
Thornton then looked ahead to the Southern California Regional Finals two nights later. The fourth-seeded Lady Pirates would entertain fifth-seeded Compton College.
“One of our unwritten goals all year long has been to get to the state finals after coming so close last year,” Thornton told reporters. “We got the opportunity to play at home tonight (against Cerritos), and we’ll play at home Saturday. I don’t think our sophomores wanted to let that opportunity slip through their hands. That was a key factor for us. I think the fact that we were a little more motivated helped us out.”
With the passage of time, Thornton is even more appreciative of the fact that his team drew the home court advantage against Compton.
“Though they played in a relatively weak conference, Compton was an awfully good team,” he says. “They came into the Saturday game full of confidence. Someone told me that they’d already reserved hotel rooms in San Diego. We would have had a tough time beating them on their home floor that night…but we had them in our gym!”
Compton brought a sparkling 31-1 record into the game, but the Pirates were not intimidated. OCC nipped the Tartars, 51-49, in a game that went down to the wire. Trailing 51-49 with 11 seconds left, Compton called timeout and prepared to take the last shot. The Tartars launched a three-point effort with three seconds remaining, but the ball was short and OCC’s Lauren Murray pulled down the rebound.
“Orange Coast wanted it just a little more than we did,” said Compton coach, Tracey McNeil. “We failed to execute down the stretch, and they did.”
The Pirates were ecstatic. As they walked off the floor they knew they were headed for the state tournament at the Jenny Craig Pavilion at the University of San Diego. It would be their first Elite Eight in five years.
“The sophomores deserve to go to the state tournament,” Thornton told the media gathered around him after the game. “They’ve been so good to us the last couple of years. Just to have the opportunity to go to the state tournament, that was their goal at the beginning of the year. We’ve had some ups and some downs, and some good times and some bad times, but to be able to play here and win on our home floor was great.”
That same weekend, number one seed, Saddleback, was knocked out of the playoffs by the eighth seed, Mt. San Antonio, 75-67.
It would not be an easy climb for the Pirates in San Diego. OCC, at 28-6, was the number three seed of the four teams from the South. The Bucs were slated to play Merced, the number two seed from the North, in the opening round. Merced was 30-6.
“Every team we played in the state tournament that year was more athletic than we were,” Thornton says today. “We had to find a way to get it done…we had to do it our way.”
Team play. Chemistry. Hard work. Making good decisions. That was the Pirate way.
“We don’t have one go-to-player,” sophomore Lauren Murray told a newspaper columnist before the tournament. “We all trust each other. We have a lot more confidence this year.”
“We were motivated after last year,” echoed sophomore forward, Candice Quiroz. “All the sophomores really want it this year, and we realized we needed to take it to another level. Personally, I thought we were one of the top eight teams in the state at the beginning of the season, which we are now. But we want to win it all.”
Sophomore guard, Nancy Hatsushi, addressed the bumps in the road the Pirates had experienced during the season. Those bumps had proved to be character builders.
“Every team goes through downfalls,” she said, “but it helped us more that we didn’t play well in those games because we knew we would have to play a lot better than that to get to the state playoffs.”
“Defense has carried us,” Thornton summed up just before the state tourney opened. OCC was giving up just 50.2 points per game, the best defensive average in the state.
OCC shot 51 percent from the floor in the quarterfinal game of the state tournament and downed Merced, 63-53. But it wasn’t easy. Merced led 45-42 with 8:31 left. The Pirates outscored the Blue Devils over the remainder of the contest, however, 21-8, to salt the victory away. Hatsushi hit two crucial three-pointers during crunch time. She cemented her role as OCC’s “Miss Clutch.”
“We had some careless turnovers,” Thornton said after the game, “but the best thing is that we weathered the storm. We seemed to get big baskets when we needed them.”
OCC then was matched in the semifinals – the Final Four – with the number one team in the state, Ventura. Ventura’s Pirates, who are also bedecked in orange, had a 33-2 record. Coast’s Pirates were 29-6. One “Orange Crush” was about to eliminate the other.
Ventura had been itching for a rematch all season.
“We were glad to be playing Ventura,” Thornton said later. “We knew we had to beat the best to be the best.”
Ventura’s coaches admitted to Thornton after the game that they’d stayed up all night the evening before the game watching tape of the two Pirate teams. How much tape did OCC’s coach watch the night before the game?
“I went to bed early,” he now says with a smile. “Our kids got to bed early, too. Sometimes you can over-prepare for an opponent…you can over-coach. No need to go bleary-eyed watching tape. We had an entire season behind us at that point. We knew what we had to do. We’d already played Ventura once, so we knew what to expect. We were ready.”
It was Saturday evening. A 7 p.m. tip off was set for the Pirates vs. Pirates encounter at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. Orange vs. Orange. Two storied women’s basketball programs. Mano-a-Mano! The joint was jumping.
Orange Coast College’s retired president, Margaret Gratton, was in the house wearing orange and blue and cheering for her Pirates.
OCC played a suffocating defense throughout the first half, and Ventura shot just 30 percent from the floor. Orange Coast’s Pirates forced seven first-half turnovers, and held a 31-24 advantage at the intermission. But, you could feel it in the air at halftime. Ventura was about to explode! Could the Coasters hold on?
Orange Coast’s lead began to evaporate in the second half. Ventura sliced the lead to 31-30 with 14:17 left to play. The Coast Pirates went on a 6-0 run to open a 37-30 advantage with 13:34 remaining. Liz Mendoza then went down with what appeared to be a badly sprained ankle. OCC’s training staff took her to the locker room.
The Pirates went scoreless for the next three-and-a-half minutes and Ventura responded with an 8-0 run to assume a 38-37 lead with 10:07 left. Were the Bucs about to fold?
“Ventura always makes runs and we always go through dry spells and I knew that was going to happen,” Thornton said after the game. “That’s the way things have gone the last two games. We seem to weather the storm and come back and make big plays and hit some shots.”
“We’ll do anything not to lose,” Nancy Hatsushi added. “When we’ve got down, we just seem to pick it up no matter what the situation is. We’ve made it this far so we aren’t just going to give up.”
Miraculously, Mendoza returned to the floor with seven minutes remaining. Though heavily taped, her movement didn’t seem to be hampered. Her return to the lineup gave the Lady Pirates the spark they needed.
Hatsushi drained a three-pointer with 5:55 to go, giving OCC’s Pirates the lead for good. Ventura cut the margin to 58-57 with 13 seconds remaining, but Lindsey Galasso was fouled on the following inbound play and hit the front end of the one-and-one to extend the lead. Candice Quiroz swatted the ball away from a Ventura player at the buzzer to end the game.
OCC prevailed, 59-57.
“This is by far the best win I’ve ever had,” said a flushed and excited Thornton following the final buzzer. “I talked to our kids after we realized that we weren’t going to win the conference championship and told them that they had a real special chance to be playing on the last day of the season. Now, we’re here.”
“It just wasn’t our night,” said disappointed Ventura head coach, Ned Mircetic. “Orange Coast played really well and met every challenge we threw at them.”
“This game’s over,” Thornton sighed after he came out of the locker room. “We’re pretty beat up right now, but we’ll do the best we can tomorrow.”
How was Thornton going to get his team up for Northern California powerhouse Contra Costa on Sunday afternoon after the emotional victory over Ventura Saturday night? That was easy, actually. The Pirates had lost to Contra Costa in December, 69-63…and, besides, this was for THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP!
“Contra Costa had the best athletes in the state that year,” Thornton says today. “We knew we couldn’t match up with them physically. We had to dig down deep one more time.
“After coming off that huge win over Ventura at about 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, our game with Contra Costa was scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday. That didn’t leave us much time to get ready. But we were familiar with them – we’d played them – and we did a walk through Sunday afternoon. Like the day of the Ventura game, we were ready to go.”
The Pirates put the cap on their storybook season. They rolled to a 69-61 victory over the Comets, the North’s number one seed.
The Bucs led from wire to wire. Nancy Hatsushi paced the Pirate attack with 20 points, and connected on five of six three-point attempts. It seemed that every time Contra Costa would make a run, Hatsushi would blunt it with a three-pointer.
“I hit my first three shots and coach (Thornton) gave me the green light to shoot,” Hatsushi told a reporter after the game. “He told me to shoot more, so, when I was open, I tried to take good shots.”
“Nancy is one of only two guards I’ve ever coached who I allowed free rein to call plays,” Thornton says. The other player was Flo Luppani, now the head coach at Santa Ana College. “Nancy was so unselfish that she usually got the ball to other players. I instructed her that night to call her own number…repeatedly!”
She also discovered numerous creative ways to get the ball into the hands of her open teammates.
Alisa Carrillo contributed 19 points, and was tough on the baseline. Lauren Murray pulled down six rebounds.
OCC built an early 21-8 lead, then held a tenuous 33-30 halftime margin. The Pirates went on an 11-2 explosion to open the second half and assumed a commanding 44-32 bulge. Contra Costa whittled the lead to 53-51 with just under five minutes to play, but the Pirates went on a 7-0 binge to go up 60-51. During that run, Hatsushi hit a rainbow three-pointer from the top of the key with time almost expired on the shot clock. It proved to be a dagger in the Comets’ heart.
Contra Costa staged a late flurry and cut the margin to three, 61-58. Lauren Murray then swished a pair of critical free throws with 28 seconds remaining to give the Bucs a 63-58 advantage. Contra Costa was forced to foul, and OCC converted six free throws in the final seconds.
“It’s the greatest moment in Orange Coast women’s basketball history,” Thornton exulted seconds after cutting down the net. “We talked about putting a state championship banner on the wall because there isn’t one there. We knew we were going to do it someday. That someday is now. This is huge!”
“This is just a great feeling, I can’t even explain it,” said Nancy Hatsushi, who was named the state tournament’s most valuable player. “This is what we have always wanted. It’s nothing I have ever experienced in my playing career.”
Thornton praised his talented point guard in the aftermath of the big win.
“Nancy is Nancy,” he said with a smile. “You know what? She wasn’t even on the first or second all-state teams. That’s a joke! She’s the best point guard I’ve had in terms of intelligence and being efficient. When we take her out of the lineup, we’re just not the same team.
“We couldn’t have done this without her…and the 11 others!”
Everyone went to class Monday morning…and the Lady Pirates were the talk of the campus. Thornton took congratulatory phone calls all day from throughout the nation.
“I was just talking to a coach from the Antelope Valley and he said, ‘Call me when you get off Cloud Nine,’” Thornton told a reporter Monday afternoon, March 16. “I told him I’ll probably call him in July. This is the greatest win I’ve ever had.”
The state women’s basketball championship stands as one of the high-water marks in Orange Coast College’s sterling 60-year athletic history.
Nancy Hatsushi, Liz Mendoza, Lauren Murray, Alisa Carrillo, Candice Quiroz, Lindsey Galasso, Leigh Marshall, Amy Shaw, Kirsten Von Tungeln, Celeste Haueter, Jessica Estrada and Laura Garnica. They all came together one special year in Peterson Gym…and created quite a stir.
It was an achievement that Orange Coast College will never forget. And it only gets bigger with the passage of time.
WE GET LETTERS….
A friend sent (my wife) Sue your article on Tandy Gillis and the championship team (Orange Slices, “Tandy Gillis: No Coach Has Ever Gotten More Out of His Players,” Nov. 30). Thank God they sent it! We both thoroughly enjoyed the article. It brought back the details of a season I will never forget.
Coaches are only as good as the athletes playing for them. Every starter and everyone on the bench (of that 1978-79 team) accepted their role. No one complained, they just wanted to win…and win they did! No group of players were more deserving.
A fact you might have missed: I believe that everyone on that championship team graduated from a four-year college. Even in those years, that is amazing and shows the character of the student athletes.
Thank you again for a wonderful article!
Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach, 1978-79