There is a common notion in many walks of life that you never want to follow a legend — you want to follow the guy that follows the legend.
It would be hard to find a better example of that than this year’s edition of the Sacred Heart Cathedral girls’ basketball team and first-year coach LyRyan Russell.
Under Russell, the Irish are back in their first state championship game since 2008 and they’ll take on Bishop Alemany, the Southern California bracket’s top seed, in the Division III title game Friday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
That 2008 team, which went 33-0 and won Sacred Heart’s third straight state title under coach Brian Harrigan, became the standard to which all Irish teams have been measured.
Harrigan’s successor, Mike Carey, simply did not live up to that standard.
In three seasons from 2009 to 2012, Carey went 45-42, never made it to a state title game and resigned last May.
“That’s just the reality of it,” Russell said of the pressure Carey faced following Harrigan. “You’re talking about a guy that led the team to three straight state titles and a No. 1 ranking in the nation. It’s not like Mike wasn’t successful. He won CCS titles and made the state tournament, but nobody would have been able to live up to that.”
At 25-6, the Irish are that far from the undefeated 2008 standard, but earned the top seed in the Division III NorCal tournament and defeated opponents by an average of 17.7 points in the three games leading up to the state championship.
“We are very excited and we’re just preparing now,” said junior guard GeAnna Summers-Luaulu, who leads the Irish in scoring with just over 10 points per game this season. “We believed in ourselves and we just needed someone to believe in us for the first time.”
Russell got an inkling of what this team was capable of in summer league, when, without any seniors playing and with almost no structure, the Irish were able to defeat rival St. Ignatius in overtime.
“We had no plays, no system, no nothing,” Russell said. “We just had pressure defense and were sharing the ball. I knew what I had at that point and wanted to make sure I kept my mouth quiet on how good we were gonna be.”
That defensive pressure, although it may be more organized now, hasn’t subsided and has become Sacred Heart’s trademark. An athletic group of guards, with the security of 6-foot-1, shot-blocking center Ashanti Coleman behind them, has pestered opponents all season.
The Irish may have a match in Alemany, though.
The Warriors (30-5) similarly like to tirelessly apply defensive pressure and also have an imposing center in 6-foot-1 junior Hannah Johnson.
Johnson had 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in Alemany’s 60-47 win over Chaminade in the SoCal final. and Coupled with Loyola Marymount-bound senior guard Leslie Lopez-Wood, who also scored 15 points against Chaminade, the Warriors have a unique duo.
Russell sees more similarities than differences between his team and Alemany, but did indicate a possible edge. It’s something the Irish have stressed all season — depth and balance.
“It’s kinda like playing ourselves, just the style of play — in your face, up and down the court, sharing the ball,” Russell said. “I do feel like we may be a little deeper than they are, so hopefully we can use that to their advantage.”