Birmingham girls basketball used depth, championship pedigree to reach City Open Division final

There are champion bloodlines on the Birmingham girls basketball team.

Dee Dee Berry’s dad, now an assistant coach for the Patriots, won a CIF Los Angeles City Section title in 1996. Zoe Mitchell’s older brother, David Elliott, won a championship with Birmingham in 2021.

Birmingham will be playing in the City Section Open Division championship against Westchester on Saturday at Pasadena City College with both pedigree and depth.

“This year, I think we have all the pieces,” Birmingham coach Victor Koopongsakorn said. “In the starting lineup, on the bench, we’re probably deeper than we’ve ever been.”

The depth has allowed the coaching staff to experiment with lineups throughout the season based on how the Patriots can best match up against opponents. Koopongsakorn said he can play eight to 10 different players on any night, and there’s hardly any drop-off in skill with his bench players.

Birmingham can play with two bigs in its lineup — something unique in high school girls basketball. Natalie Lopez, Sammy Velasquez and Berry are experienced guards and Lili Martinez and Mitchell are capable passers in the post.

“We just keep telling them they’ve gotta work with each other,” Koopongsakorn said. “If the guards want to get shots, the posts have gotta do their job. And the post want to get shots, the guards have gotta do their job. So we’re tough to game plan and try to stop everything we have.”

The Patriots had shooting struggles in their semifinal game against King/Drew and made only one 3-pointer in the game. Koopongsakorn said that the extra lines used for college games on El Camino College’s court might have confused the players, so he taped lines on Birmingham’s gym floor to help them prepare for the championships.

Birmingham has the advantage of having played at Pasadena City College before. But even if the shots don’t fall, depth and defense will be there for the Patriots.

“We’ve been trying to emphasize to the team that it doesn’t have to be our offense that leads the way,” Koopongsakorn said. “We stress defense a lot and our defense can lead the way to where we can get stops and get easy buckets.”

Velasquez often takes the lead on defense and puts excessive pressure on the ball. She’s also playing in her first championship game with Birmingham after recovering from ACL surgery her sophomore year in 2022, the last time Patriots were in a City Section championship game.

Birmingham won its first West Valley League championship this season and beat Granada Hills for the first time since 2010, which gave the team a confidence boost for the playoffs.

Being on top was unfamiliar to the Patriots at first, but it’s helped them rise to the level of their competition just like some players’ dads and older brothers have done before them.

“They’ve shown that they can handle being favored,” Koopongsakorn said. “I don’t think that pressure got to them. They were able to step up in the big games and big moments.”

GIRLS BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS SCHEDULE

CIF City Section

Open Division

Birmingham vs. Westchester at Pasadena City College, Saturday, 7 p.m.

Division II

Kennedy vs. Van Nuys at Birmingham High School, Friday, 6 p.m.

CIF Southern Section

Open Division

Sierra Canyon vs. Etiwanda at Cal Baptist University, Riverside, Friday, 6 p.m.

Division 2A

Louisville vs. Lakewood at Colony High School, Saturday, noon

Division 3AA

Cerritos vs. Oak Park at Edison High School, Saturday, 6:30

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