Love Conquers All: Poly’s season long journey leads to city championship.
If you want an understanding of the special traits that exist within this Poly Lady Parrots program, it all starts with their first game of the 2022-23 season. The Parrots traveled to Santa Clarita to take on West Ranch but would have to deal with adversity right out of the gate. Due to team infractions, two of the Parrots starters in Heart and Hannah Lising were ineligible to start the contest and after a difficult quarter, the Parrots were down 12-1 on the scoreboard. The Parrots would outscore the Wildcats 38-24 the rest of the way and notch their first win of the year. After the game Head Coach Tremeka Batiste talked about the goals that she felt were attainable by her group; win twenty games, go undefeated in the East Valley League, and win a city title. “It won’t be easy, but this group is talented. If we played together and play for each other, this can be a special season for us.”
Saying it wouldn’t be easy was an understatement. This group was dynamic, especially on the offensive end with their chimera made up of the Lisings and senior captain and emotional leader Sofia Cruz, who had already proven herself to be one of the more versatile players in the Valley coming into the season. Cruz's ability to operate in the post and handle the basketball on the perimeter creates matchup nightmares for opponents. Where the going would ultimately get tough for Poly was just in their size, both amongst the players themselves and the size of the roster itself. Poly primarily plays most nights with a seven-girl rotation, which means their top players often log heavy minutes. “We are a small bunch,” said Batiste talking about her roster. “But where we aren’t big in stature and sheer roster size, this group makes up for it in will and determination, so we will compete every night.”
The Parrots got out of the blocks fast this season, winning eight of their first nine contests, with their only defeat during the beginning stretch coming at the hands of city section powerhouse Birmingham by two points. Their only prolonged losing streak came at the West Coast Holiday Tournament at the end of December, where they lost three straight games to Taft, Granada Hills, and Hart while managing a depleted roster due to injuries and players missing time away from the team. But the new year represented a renewed focus for Poly, as they would tear it up the rest of the season, defeating 12 of their 13 opponents by an average margin of 27 points.
Along the way, they checked off their first goal of the season, remaining undefeated in the East Valley League, including a sweep of a strong and talented Verdugo Hills team that was coming into the season winning three straight city championships and had designs on winning the East Valley League themselves. “It’s what we expected to do,” said Batiste on the team winning the league in dominant fashion. “I’m proud of the girl’s ability to focus every night and take care of business. But we aren’t satisfied. We can accomplish more.”
Poly came into the postseason as the #4 seed in Division 1 and was brimming with the confidence of a team that hadn’t been beaten in over a month. Their first playoff game came at home against Garfield, and the Parrots made quick work of the Bulldogs, racing out to a 41-10 halftime lead, on their way to a comfortable 24-point victory. The Division 1 semifinals took place at Birmingham High School, and their opponents were none other than the #1 seeded Hamilton Yankees, the last team to defeat Poly this season. Bolstered by the raucous environment, and sheer guts and will, the Parrots avenged their loss to Hamilton 56-47 and punched their ticket to their first championship game appearance since the Division 2 championship game in 2021.
The victory did not come without a cost, as Heart Lising was involved in a minor dust-up in the waning moments of the contest. Emotions were running high on both sides due to the physical nature of the matchup. Unfortunately, due to her participation in the altercation, although it was minor, Lising was ejected from the game and would be ineligible to play in the championship. It was a bittersweet pill to swallow after the team had fought so hard to arrive at a chance at cementing their legacy as champions. “It’s disappointing for this to happen when the team has worked so hard to get here,” said Batiste after advancing to the title game. “The message doesn’t change. If we play with love and play for your teammate next to you, we will still have a chance to finish this the way we want to.”
In the championship game held at Pasadena City College, the final obstacle between Poly and championship glory was another team that had established a winning pedigree in recent years in LACES. The Unicorns were making their first championship appearance since the Division 1 final in 2021, where they bested King/Drew for the crown. They were more than formidable, having knocked off two West Valley squads in the defending D1 champions El Camino Real in the quarterfinals and ending Cleveland’s Cinderella run as a 10th
seed in the semifinals to get there.
When the championship tilt began, the Parrots found themselves in the familiar place of facing adversity again. LACES raced out to a 12-5 lead behind hot shooting from behind the arc in the opening minutes of the contest. Unfazed by the deficit, team captains Cruz and Lising went to work, combining for 10 points, 3 assists, and 5 rebounds between them to get the Parrots back into the game. Poly would eventually be leading 17-16 by the end of the first quarter on the strength of a late basket by freshman guard Audrey Flores. “It’s who we’ve been all season,” said Batiste, about her team’s resolve. “When we get down, there is no back down in this group.”
In the second quarter, the Parrots continued the momentum they gathered in the late stages of the first quarter to build a double-digit lead going into the half. Hannah Lising was a dominating force, racking up 17 points in the period, including back-to-back corner threes that extended the lead in a flash. Defensively, poly did a better job adjusting to LACES’ terrific perimeter shooters by closing out hard and forcing the Unicorns into tougher contested attempts inside. Lising was a terror on the glass, racking up eight rebounds in the quarter, which helped close out defensive possessions and limited the Unicorns from getting second-shot opportunities. The Parrots held LACES to nine points in the second quarter on their way to a 36-25 halftime lead.
In a mirror image of What Poly did in the late stages of the first quarter, LACES came out with pressure to start the second half and got themselves back into the ballgame, forcing turnovers and converting them into quick buckets. In a blink, the Unicorns got themselves back into the contest, and it was the first time that it seemed as if Cruz and Lising were struggling without Heart being on the floor to be the third ball handler who can keep the team composed in the face of a relenting press. By the end of the period, not only had LACES erased the 11-point deficit on the scoreboard to tie the game 46-46 heading into the fourth, but Lising picked up her fourth foul. It was clear this was going to be a fight to the finish and the Parrots were going to need all hands-on deck to get it done.
Neither squad was willing to retreat early in the fourth as they traded 3-point field goals early on. With Lising not being able to play as aggressively as she did in the first half, Cruz stepped up huge down the stretch for Poly, converting a bucket and knocking down a pair of free throws late. Samantha Saldana has been an unsung hero for the squad all season long. While her stats may not jump out on a nightly basis, her role is as critical as any on the team as she is usually tasked with defending girls often bigger than herself on this undersized Poly squad. Like she has done all year, Saldana came up huge drawing three charges down the stretch when it looked like LACES might build momentum on the offensive end. The last of these potentially saved the game for Parrots when the game was tied with less than 30 seconds to go in the contest. The Parrots also received quality minutes from sophomore reserve guard Stephanie Claybon, who gave the team a spark on the defensive end of the floor, especially when Lising inevitably picked up her fifth foul late in the fourth. Sophomore guard Jhada Cordon also filled the shoes of the lead guards admirably in this game when her number was called, scoring nine points, and collecting four rebounds. Her biggest moment of the contest came late in the fourth quarter, where she calmly knocked down two clutch free throws to tie the game before the proceedings went to overtime.
In the overtime period, Poly would not be denied. The teams traded shots early in the overtime period before Poly was able to get a huge basket from Flores to extend their lead to 65-61. LACES guard junior guard Katie Chiba didn’t give the Poly faithful any time to celebrate, as she answered the Flores bucket with a cold-blooded three-pointer to cut Poly’s lead to 65-64. In poetic fashion, it was the senior leadership that put the team on their back and delivered the championship. Cruz would get fouled and would knock down one of two free throws to extend the advantage to 66-64. On the Unicorns’ final possession, senior wing Alyssa Jaime read the ball handler and jumped into the passing lane to come up with a huge steal. Jaime would get fouled and knock down one of two free throws. LACES would get one last possession to try and tie the ballgame with 7 seconds, but the Poly defense dug in one final time and denied the Unicorns from even attempting a shot before the final horn blared. Poly had done it. In the face of all the adversity and the pressure of expectation, the Parrots had accomplished their third goal; to become city champions.
“I am so incredibly proud of this team,” said Batiste, fighting back emotions as she spoke of what the team had just accomplished. “It really took everyone for us to win this game. Even though it was a tough week knowing we would have to play without Heart, I told the girls I don’t need any of you to be her, I need you to just be who you are. Play with love, play for each other and we will be champions. That is just what they did.”
The Parrots will move on to play in the state tournament, and then the seniors will move on to college, having left their indelible legacies on the program. But there is strong reason to believe this will not be the last championship appearance for this group. The Lising twins and Saldana will return as the new senior leaders with dreams of back-to-back title aspirations. And they will bring with them a slew of young players like Flores, Claybon, and Cordon with a wealth of championship experience. This newly minted championship program built on love and determination may just be getting started.