By Aram Tolegian, Staff Writer
Number 5 seeds aren’t supposed to win CIF Southern California Regional championships.Teams without a starter more than 5-foot-9 aren’t supposed to play for state titles. That’s exactly what’s taking place, though, with the Bishop Amat High School girls basketball team. And the Lancers can thank coach Richard Wiard for it. (To continue, click thread)
Amat’s improbable postseason run concludes Saturday at Cal State Bakersfield as, what else, a sizable underdog against powerful St. Mary’s of Stockton in the Division III state championship game.
But who’s betting against Wiard at this point?
As Agoura, Santa Margarita and most recently Inglewood have found out, coaching counts for a lot in girls basketball.
Don’t believe it? Then consider the comments of Inglewood coach Tony Scott who, following his team’s upset loss at the hands of Wiard’s Lancers in last Saturday’s Southern California Regional championship, reasoned that Wiard was Amat’s best player.
“That’s what you expect from Richard Wiard,” Scott said. “I’ve been watching Richard Wiard for years, and the only surprise was he didn’t change much from our first game.”
Perhaps not, but the final score did change. When Amat suffered a 63-48 loss to Inglewood in the Southern Section semifinals, Wiard blamed himself. Then he got his second opportunity at the Sentinels.
Amat produced a shocking 17-point reversal, upsetting Inglewood 56-54, and it was obvious to all that Wiard had masterminded the stunner … not that he’d ever admit it.
“We changed our defense a bit,” Wiard said. “It’s hard to say we did a lot of things better, but we allowed them to shoot bad shots and they chose to shoot them. They went 3 for 20 on their 3-pointers.”
Postseason success at Amat is nothing new under Wiard. After all, the six-time Tribune Coach of the Year notched a 70-1 record over the course of the 2005 and ’06 seasons, both of which ended with state championships.
This year, however, something’s different. Amat doesn’t have the powerhouse lineups it had in ’05 and ’06, or even those of ’04 and ’07, when it also reached the state finals. In fact, Amat relies heavily on underclassmen and has just one player headed for college ball next season – Arielle Wideman, who’ll attend Nevada.
“It’s a much bigger surprise we are where we are this year,” Wiard said. “It’s more surprising we’ve gotten to this point, in the sense that the other teams were expected to get there and this team wasn’t.
“From a coaching perspective, our goal is to get them to do the best they’re capable of doing. That’s any coach’s goal. You want your kids to play the best they’re capable of, and right now we’re doing that.”
Most observers figured Amat’s season was over in the second round of state when the Lancers faced Agoura, then 30-1, on the road. Amat dominated throughout, though, and left with a 70-61 victory.
Then most people assumed the joke would surely be over when the Lancers traveled to No. 1 seed Santa Margarita. It wasn’t. Amat won 58-48 to force a rematch with Inglewood, which it upset to post another banner in the gym.
“Is it amazing we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten? Absolutely,” Wiard said. “We’ve continued to improve to get to this point, and it’s testament to the girls’ hard work and dedication.”
Wiard took last season off to further his education. He was on the bench as an assistant for the playoffs, but it wasn’t the same, and Amat was out in the quarterfinals of the Southern Section playoffs.
Things didn’t figure to get much better this season, with Wideman being the lone returning starter in a rotation that plays several underclassmen in key roles.
“My first impression of us was that we’re short,” Wiard said with a chuckle. “But we were also skilled and we had kids who could shoot and are fundamentally sound. I felt we could compete; we had good basketball players.”
Being good basketball players isn’t enough, though, at the highest level. Not being able to fall back on the height or athleticism of previous Amat editions meant the Lancers had to be as close to perfect as possible or face consequences such as the first meeting against Inglewood.
“This team has a much smaller margin for error than the ’05, ’06 or even the ’07 team had, that were more physically gifted,” Wiard said. “Many of those girls went on to play Division I college basketball, so they had a much larger margin for error. I think that says a lot about how hard the kids are playing and the way they’re playing together.”
That Amat can reach state title games with either a roster that boasts multiple next-level talents or a roster that features precious few of those types shows that Wiard has reached a point where he doesn’t miss when he’s got a talent surplus and can still surprise when he doesn’t.
“We’ve done the same things we’ve always done,” Wiard said. “We scout, we game plan, we practice plan and we practice for two hours every Saturday. We haven’t changed much because it’s been successful for us.”
626-962-8811, ext. 2242