The CV High School senior may be preparing for graduation … but first, it’s the Pacific League playoffs.
By Brandon HENSLEY
Explanations can be tricky. For instance, one night in December one of Ella Stepanian’s black Converse shoes got jammed in one of the steps of the Crescenta Valley High School gymnasium bleachers.
Don’t ask her how it got that way. One moment she was packing up her bag from that spot with both of her shoes seemingly in her possession to get ready for a game, and the next she couldn’t find the shoe, only for it to appear days later, stuck two steps from the top on the side of the Lady Falcons’ bench.
She wanted it back. It wasn’t like she was okay with leaving a literal mark on the basketball program before she graduated in June, but all distractions have been put to the wayside this year. Instead, she’s soaking up every moment she has left.
You don’t need to ask her if that’s true, because her body language tells the story whenever she gets the ball. Even if the pass is at her chest, she often jumps upon reception, and she scissor kicks in mid-air. Her long hair, securely tied on the very top of her head, bounces a little, and her head is up, always up, looking for a shot or an avenue to get the ball to an open teammate. At 6’0’’ and as the primary ball-handler, every eye in the gym is on her, even if her eyes are constantly darting around, anticipating a play that hasn’t even begun to form.
Every minute of every quarter of every game, it’s obvious: Stepanian is happy to be back playing basketball.
Injury Offers Insight
She wears a black brace on her right knee. After practice she’ll take it off, and the red mark becomes visible where the surgeon made the incision. It’s not a big deal to her anymore.
“Another scar, another story,” she said with a shrug.
The story of her torn ACL in the summer of 2012 isn’t anything special, but it’s a lesson in patience nonetheless. Playing defense for her Armenian club team Ararat Homenetmen, she cut off her man, they collided, her knee twisted and the familiar pop! that accompanies these injuries rang out.
Stepanian cried, not from the pain but from the shock of what this could mean.
“We knew it was serious, but we didn’t think it was a long-term injury,” said Tanisha Minassian, Stepanian’s friend of nearly a decade and teammate on Ararat and Crescenta Valley.
An MRI revealed it was a long-term injury, one that would probably force her to miss her entire junior season. The opportunity to build off of a sophomore campaign in which she averaged 13 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals was gone.
“It was a definitely a huge burden,” Minassian recalled. “Who’s going to be our point guard now? Because she’s our scorer, our point guard. She does everything for us.”
The rehab was brutal. “I would come out drenched in sweat – more than a basketball game,” Stepanian recalled. Her workouts consisted of running, jumping and stabilizing the knee, and eventually there was a sliver of hope that she might have been able to play sometime in February. But the Falcons struggled all year, going just 9-18 and their season was done before Stepanian could get back on the court.
“Our team just shifted … It was difficult,” Minassian said of that year.
The one bright spot? If she had been on the court, Stepanian would have likely been the focal point of a team in transition and would she have paid enough attention to her teammates? Would she have fully integrated herself within the system the way so many other stars struggle to do? Watching from the bench, she gained a new perspective.
“Subconsciously, I was learning about my teammates,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time but I found out about it after.”
Important, But the Best?
Stepanian’s importance is not lost on her teammates, as the Falcons head toward the playoffs with a second-place 10-3 record in the Pacific League entering the season finale against Arcadia.
“She’s always looking up and [we] can always count on her to find the right person in the right spots,” said center Alisa Shinn. “She basically does all the work on the floor.”
But it’s not just on offense. When the Falcons score, they like to full-court press. Stepanian will crouch in the half-court circle, waiting and watching. If a player decides to throw it anywhere near her, she leaps high with those long arms and snares the errant pass, like a spider collecting prey that unwittingly fly into her silky trap.
Stepanian, who was averaging just over five steals a game heading into February, is clearly the most talented player on the floor. And yet …
“She’s extremely humble,” Minassian said. “If she scores, she’ll never talk about it. She’ll be like, ‘Oh, what are you talking about?’”
Shinn said she gives everyone the same amount of respect, the same amount of attention. Then you ask Stepanian herself.
“I know I’m skilled but I could never call myself the best player,” she said.
But isn’t that silly? What can’t she do?
Reluctant But Deadly
She likes to jog lightly, like she’s prancing, but when she’s tired, you know it. And the way Coach Jason Perez uses her, it’s not uncommon for her to grab her shorts and take several deep breaths during a timeout before she’s needed again. And sometimes she’ll limp on her way back on defense, favoring her right leg, and you think oh, no. Perez? He’s thinking oh, please.
“She’s a basketball player, she’s an athlete,” he said. “She’s worked very hard to get back in shape. She’s super athletic. She’ll tell me if something’s wrong.”
Minassian acknowledged it’s not so much about her knee, it’s that she’s too drained.
Sometimes the combination of exhaustion, frustration and tension can topple any player on any team. Those things happened in two Pacific League games to the champion Burroughs Indians this season. Both times the Falcons had comfortable leads and both times they squandered them. Stepanian played a part in building those leads, but also missed shots and committed turnovers down the stretch that helped Burroughs escape.
She admitted in the first matchup in January there was a shot Minassian missed and, as it bounced away, she took a step and froze; going for that ball would have taken everything out of her. Another point in the game she grabbed and fouled a player.
“Everyone was like, ‘Well you could have probably cut her off,’ she said. “I probably couldn’t have. Either way it was going to be a foul.”
The Burroughs collapses are in stark contrast to how she operates against most teams, draining its life force instead of the other way around, and she’s not necessarily doing it with her shot as she leads the team in assists with over five per game.
Hoover Tornadoes Coach Stan Watson said he’s seen a more reluctant shooter, but still deadly player, in Stepanian this year.
“I don’t know why. Her sophomore year, she went off on us, 25 [points] and 10 [rebounds], 27 and 13,” he said. “She’s looking to distribute the ball, which is great.”
Stepanian is no stranger to opinions about her game, whether from fans who tell her she was a ball hog when she played for Ararat as a kid, or her freshman year at CV, when the comparisons to 2010 graduate Cassie Pappas were heaped on her. Pappas, who is third all-time in CV points with over 1,900, was smaller and perhaps quicker, scoring at high volumes that Stepanian shies away from. To her, it’s not about who gets the credit for the basket.
Perez will drill into his team’s heads that the ball should go to the post more. Get the ball to the post, pass it to the post, he’ll say.
“Coach,” she’ll respond, “how do you think Alisa is leading the team is scoring? All we ever do is pass it to her.”
Getting Inside Her Head
Let’s go back to that first Burroughs loss, a game in which Stepanian missed the game winning shot with under five seconds left. She walked slowly to the locker room afterward, alone, and as the boys’ teams played, she and Perez sat in chairs behind the basket as he meticulously went over everything that just happened, like he always does. Perez firmly believes Stepanian is a Division I college talent – she is is still undecided — but that won’t stop him from coaching her after the whistle blows.
Stepanian appreciates it, but inside she’s thinking, I know, Coach, I was there.
“I’m in my head after a game, I’m going over the mistakes but also the good things,” she said. “Like, you contributed, and the team wouldn’t have been in that position if were not for you.” It sounds good, though she admits, “It’s all to keep myself emotionally stable for the next game.”
After this season, Perez will lose his captain, someone who can stand up to his fiery personality and take him aside and tell him if he’s approaching a player or a situation the wrong way. On the court, he’s losing another coach as well.
“It’s great to have a kid like that,” he said of Stepanian’s leadership, “who’s got the team’s best interest at heart and wants everything to come together.”
That shoe could have become the stuff of legend when she graduated, like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Who could have been the lucky one to pull it out?
But it did come out, sometime last week, and apparently Stepanian wasn’t notified.
“If it’s not there I want it back,” she said after a win over Pasadena on senior night.
But if it’s gone forever, she’ll keep wearing the ever-popular Toms, or even her Doc Martins, which inflate her height even more. Just like her scar, though, that doesn’t bother her.
“I like to stand tall,” she said. “I’m proud of my height.”
She can also be proud of her time as a Falcon: from enduring through a major injury to the mystery of a lost shoe, and from the effortless jumpers that hit nothing but net to every ounce of energy that went into the heartbreakers that didn’t fall.
“It’s really the friendships that I made,” she said, “the skills that I learned and the mental toughness that I got from high school and this program that I appreciate.”