The Lady Mustangs have been tearing up the court this season going undefeated in Agape League competition. The team is now entering the C.I.F. playoffs. Photo by Peter Day
They say “good things come to those who wait,” but the golden prize took awhile until it finally began revealing itself this season for the Lucerne Valley High School girls basketball team.
The 2023-24 Lady Mustang basketball squad, a team of promise and expectations, ran into a buzz saw in its first weeks when the team went against larger, faster non-league teams in tournament play. But they gradually clawed their way back and by the end of the regular season, the team had won its third Agape League Championship in a row.
Under Coach Brandon Barkley, the Lady Mustangs have 134 wins in the nine years he has coached the girls basketball team. With its victory against Victor Valley Christian last Friday (Lucerne Valley 53, to Victor Valley Christian’s 14) the Lucerne Valley girls basketball have 31 straight wins against league teams wins dating all the way back to the 2019-20 season.
But on the night they fully expected to seal the deal with their championship, their opponent Excelsior Charter School made them work for it. At halftime the Lady Mustangs were only leading by three points over the Eagles, 11-8. But during halftime Coach Barkley said something that lifted their players.
“He said he was proud of us no matter if we win or lose, but he said he knew we were going to win,” one of the players said later. “So we just brought our intensity up,” said another.
Despite the pep talk, the tight scoring game continued in the third quarter with the Lady Mustangs scoring 11 to the Eagles’ 8, but the game blew wide open in the fourth when Lucerne Valley scored 21 points to Excelsior Charter’s 5. The final score: Lucerne Valley, 43, Excelsior Charter, 21.
“They knew that they weren’t playing well,” Coach Barkley said later. “They needed to go back to just what we need to do. They played like they knew how to play and put that game away.”
“They know the plan they need to do,” Assistant Coach Charles Ledbetter said. “We’re usually a second half team, so they know what they need to come with and what they need bring. Step it up and defend our home court.”
“It did take them awhile,” said Assistant Coach Ashley Davalos. “They were nervous; they had the jitters, but once they got through that they just played like they knew what they were supposed to do. They did great.”
The Lucerne Valley girls basketball team has a 16-6 overall record, is 9-0 in the Agape League, and ranks 34th in the C.I.F. Southern Section Division for 5AA schools.
TEAM LIVES UP TO HYPE
A year ago, Coach Barkley, who hails from Riverside, predicted that despite the graduation of two-time Agape League MVP Jewell Moy the squad had a bright future ahead. But the season didn’t start off as hoped.
“The season started off a bit slow because we were in the Hesperia Christian tournament playing teams way above us, and we went 0-4 which put us in the hole from the start, plus we were still adjusting from losing Jewell.”
In fact, aside from the two tournaments at Hesperia Christian and in Loma Linda the team is 14-and-0 for the season “and all 6 of our losses came from tournaments where we did have tougher competition.” That slow start during the season opener tournaments caused some players to try too hard. Once they realized they didn’t have to do so much and just relax and play the game of basketball things started to come easier.
One of the huge surprises this season was freshman Jasmine Pepper who exceeded both her and the coach’s expectations in her first year of playing high school ball.
“When we started last summer she was nervous about joining high school basketball out of Middle School, thinking she wouldn't do well, but once she put that behind her, she has turned into a huge contributor to the team.”
Her can-do attitude as center has made a tremendous difference, and she is one of the team’s top scorers. Both Jasmine and sophomore guard Amaya Kelly have three double-doubles this season. (Amaya also leads the team with 8.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 3.9 steals per game.)
“Jasmine understands where she needs to go on the court, where her teammates are and how they play, and she just does everything that needs to be done. She is going to be a special player when she gets older.”
Coach Barkley says that “hands down” Chloe Evans is the team’s biggest difference maker who leads by example.
“She never misses practices, is dedicated to her spot on the team and is willing to play ANY position on the court, and this year she has played all five positions.”
But there isn’t just one, two, or three players responsible for the great season.
“I think one of the best things about this team is I don't have that ‘star’ that has to score all the points, up all their stats. I have a team who play unselfishly, wants everyone to score and have success. The fact the top scorers are 7.5 points per game (Jasmine Pepper), 7.5 points per game (Amaya Kelly) and 7.4 points per game (Chloe Evans) truly shows we are a team!”
Lucerne Valley High School (17-6) will host the Santa Rosa Academy Rangers (12-10) on Thursday, February 8 at 7 p.m. in the first round of the playoffs.