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The Cougar Break

Posted: March 1, 2008 1:24 a.m.
Updated: May 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.

College of the Canyons head women's basketball coach Greg Herrick diagrams his team's fastbreak during a practice at the College of the Canyons' Cougar Cage.

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It's not so much what she said, but what she did. Britney Bradley, immediately upon being asked about her first basketball practice at College of the Canyons, moved her left arm and grabbed the side of her body.

She remembered the pain and the exact place where it came from.

It's a pain many feel - College of the Canyons women's basketball players at first, opposing players second.

It's supposed to be that way.

Head coach Greg Herrick's offense, for 16 seasons, has been one of the more unique ones not only in the state, but nationally.

Its success is measured in numbers - the state record for points per game in a season (95.3 in 1996-97), six Western State Conference Most Valuable Player awards, 10 conference titles including three straight and a .704 winning percentage.

There have been names for it - "The Designated Lane Break," "The Break," "Our Mission Is Transition."

Those are the semi-official ones - as Herrick chooses not to officially name it.

Then there are the unofficial ones - chaos, playground ball, cherry-picking.

The basketball ignorant, and there are many, would think there is not much to it.

What they see is a team running its opponents out of the gym for 40 minutes - start to finish.

Even if the lead is 30 and there is 30 seconds left, they try to score as many times as possible.

Herrick, sitting in his corner office below the Cougars' gymnasium, laughs off the ignorance.

Surrounded by pictures of past teams, a younger Herrick with a mustache and a Raiderette who signed: To Coach Herrick, the animated coach recalls one particular story of the misunderstanding.

"Clyde Smyth, he was the superintendent of the Hart District, said to me one time: I really like watching your Cleveland guys play, but aren't they a little out of control?" Herrick says.

The Cougars, as well as Cleveland and Hart highs where he previously coached, ran this offense that is a little more sophisticated than one would assume.

It's a fast-break stampede for 40 minutes, but it has its nuances.

The most important aspect of the COC break is that each of the five players on the offensive end has a designated lane in which they will run, whether it's on a rebound or an inbound.

That lane is precise.

Each player has a role.

- The center
The center always gives the inbound pass. They then sprint down court and find room in the post.

A few wrinkles come into the offense from time to time.

In 1989, Herrick's Hart High team had an athletic 6-foot-6 center who could shoot from all points of the floor.

Instead of posting him up all the time, Herrick's center trailed behind after the inbound, then set up at the top of the key.

It opened up numerous offensive options and also opened up the post for everyone else as the other team's center was drawn out.

Herrick first bounced the idea off former Los Angeles Lakers and Loyola Marymount head coach Paul Westhead, a friend of Herrick's.

Westhead dismissed the idea.

But Herrick said he flipped on the TV one day and was watching a Loyola Marymount game.

Westhead employed Herrick's idea.

"That SOB, he stole my idea," Herrick recalls thinking.

His current center Andrea Bobic, just 5-foot-8 but a rebounding terror, is used as a trailer.

- The power forward
Her postmate, the power forward, runs her lane and camps out near the paint.

Herrick says the four is the focus of his offense.

Because the break is so quick - Herrick says he wishes the shot clock would be seven seconds - the point guard's choice, many times, is to deal underneath to the power forward.

The result has been staggering.

All of Herrick's power forwards at COC have been recognized in some form for postseason awards.

The 2007-08 team's four is Western State Conference honorable mention Charity Smith.

- The small forward
The small forward is generally the best athlete and runs the floor and gets herself open.

It's a scoring position.

- The shooting guard
But the shooting guard is probably the most unique position in this offense.

Herrick said he went through a bunch of statistics on two guards and noticed how paltry their rebounding numbers usually are.

His decision was to set the shooting guard free from rebounding.

The moment a shot goes up, the two bolts to the other end of the floor.

That gives her the best chance to score and has earned that position the derogatory moniker of "cherry picker."

- Point guard.
Herrick calls his point guard "the messenger."

It is the only position where the player has to make decisions and is the most important for College of the Canyons.

The point guard receives the ball from the inbounder every time - every single time.

So what if a defense doubles the point guard?

The coach has the three grab the pass then deliver to the point.

The point guard always catches with her momentum going forward.

College of the Canyons has had some dynamic players at the position, but one thing has always been the same, they are assist machines.

Kyetra Brown was the first great one.

She played for COC in 1994-95 and 1996-97 and became the state's career assist leader.

Brown later tried out for the Los Angeles Sparks.

Other great ones followed - the greatest likely being Leslie Ortiz.

Ortiz was an unheralded guard from Sylmar High who arrived at COC in 2005.

But the 5-foot-1 spark plug became a star at COC by delivering grief to opponents with an array of different passes, including a no-look.

"You can't teach that roadrunner ability," says COC assistant coach Harlan Perlman. "She would do things every day that I'd say, 'How the hell did she do that?'"

Ortiz holds the state mark for assists with 390 and career record with 718.

So anyone that came after had a tough act to follow.

It's Perlman's job to find the right parts for the offense and constantly replace the pieces for the two-year school.
Perlman has been coaching with Herrick for 21 years, dating back to the Hart High days.

He knew a year ago who he would use to replace Ortiz - a shooting guard.

"I had no doubt," Perlman says about recruiting Bradley.

Bradley was a shooting guard for the past two seasons at Hart High, playing on Dave Munroe's motion-offense, defense-first teams.

The Indians tried to wear down teams defensively and did it with much success. In 2006, they won the CIF-Southern Section Division I-A championship, averaging 57 points per contest.

As Herrick puts it: "They used to score 40 points a game. I'd be mad if we had 40 points at halftime."

Perlman saw a quick guard with solid ball handling abilities who was underutilized at Hart.

He knew it wouldn't be difficult to turn a walk-it-up-the-court player who handled the ball less into a speed merchant who could deliver passes in a fast-paced offense,

Bradley says she didn't have any reservations, but she smiles remembering how she felt at the first COC practice.

"I was a little nervous at first," she admits.

She says it was hard to breathe at first because of the non-stop running, but she got acclimated pretty quickly.

It helps when before the season starts, Herrick has his players train with College of the Canyons strength and conditioning coach Robert dos Remedios.

The 2006 National Strength and Conditioning Association Coach of the Year had the girls run on the track, on the football field and a small sandpit near the softball field.

The sandpit is an unforgiving box that attacks the leg muscles and forces you to suck for air.

By the time the season begins, after sweat and pain and occasionally vomit, the players are ready to run.

Opponents know, based on reputation, what to expect.

Perlman compares it to the Green Bay Packers' sweep from the Vince Lombardi days.

There's that old NFL film of Lombardi drawing it on a chalkboard, hiding nothing.

Herrick doesn't hide it either.

He'll draw it out, as he did in his office.

But others want to know more.

Five-time state champion and Herrick's rival Ned Mircetic, Ventura College's head coach, has offered to buy his colleague lunch and go over his defense with the COC coach in exchange for a breakdown of the Cougar break.

Herrick won't have any of it.

"That question to him is a serious one," Mircetic says of learning the offense.

But what would compel an 18-year head coach who has won 18 conference titles in a row to ask his rival for help?

Mircetic says he used to be arrogant, thinking he knew all there was to coaching, but in the last three years, he's become more open-minded.

It was his team in 1997 that beat the Cougars in their only trip to the state title game - the same Cougar team that has the state record for most points per game in a season.

COC had earlier defeated Pierce College 146-48 and Los Angeles Valley 132-33.

But Ventura was the best defensive team in the state that season.

Mircetic recalls the strategy for that game being stop the two-guard and let Brown score.

The idea was to frustrate Brown's teammates because they wouldn't get their shots.

Ventura's victory also had a lot to do with state MVP Amirah Leonard choosing Ventura over her second choice - College of the Canyons.

Mircetic understands fully what could happen if COC is allowed to run wild.

His counter is to slow the game down to disrupt the offensive rhythm.

"They're like a fast windshield wiper," he says. "You have to put a delay timer on it and hold it a few seconds. If you run with them, you'll probably be unsuccessful."

No matter what, though, you still have to chase them.

Sophomores who played against COC the previous year have that experience.

"For freshmen, it's kind of like, 'Whoa, this is a little different," Mircetic says.

Herrick recalls playing a Pierce team some years back that had only five players.

During the game, a Pierce player ran from the court and into the lobby and likely the bathroom to vomit.

Herrick recalls telling his player with the defensive assignment: "Who are you guarding?" not realizing where the Pierce player had gone.

He remembers also saying afterward: "If she goes to the bathroom, you follow her."

Herrick's sense of humor is one of his strongest qualities.

But so is his studiousness.

Herrick says he traveled the country in the 1970s, learning from wherever and whoever he could about basketball.

In 1976, he began his coaching career at Cleveland High in Reseda.

Three years later, he became the school's varsity boys basketball head coach.

It was at that point that he started using a fast-break offense.

He learned it from Sonny Allen, who coached for 43 years at places like Old Dominion, Southern Methodist University and Nevada.

Herrick also spent weekends in Las Vegas and gained more knowledge from former UNLV men's head coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Tarkanian won a national championship in 1990.

Despite all the success College of the Canyons has attained with this offense, there is still one thing missing - a state championship.

The Cougars were in the state semifinals for the second time ever last season.

But matchup problems sunk their ship in a 59-42, yes 42, loss to Mt. San Antonio College - the eventual state champ.

"Yeah," Herrick hesitates after being told of the elusive state title, "that's our goal. We won't stop until we get it."

The reply didn't answer the question as to why this offense has been so successful, yet hasn't reached the peak of state junior college basketball.

Another try elicits a simple response.

"We haven't won a state championship because we haven't been good enough to win a state championship," he says.

They'll keep running to get one.

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