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Northridge Academy girls basketball makes school history in first year of restart under Nick Kindel

It looked like 2021-22 would be a rebuilding year for the Pumas, but they went on to have the best season in program history

NORTHRIDGE – At 7 a.m. on a mid-June day in 2021, Nick Kindel, Aliya Latif, and Raissa and Rio Mahawan assembled at the Holleigh Bernson Memorial Park basketball court for the first time. It was officially the start of a new era for Northridge Academy girls basketball.

Kindel, an L.A. City Section product as both a player and a coach, had taken the head coaching job at Northridge just weeks before. The other three Pumas at the park were Northridge's first, and at the time, only three players. 

Latif was an incoming freshman who had only played competitive basketball for two years, not including some park league ball when she was younger. Rio and Rai Mahawan only had three combined seasons of high school basketball experience, and they hadn't played competitively since before the pandemic.

While that doesn't sound like the origin story of a contender, it was already a major upgrade over the 2020-21 school year in which the Pumas didn't have a team or a coach. And Northridge's new core was determined to rebuild the program into an LACS powerhouse.

Latif was a blue chip prospect from before she stepped on campus, a fluid 5-foot-11 wing with promising ball skills relative to her late start as a player. She represented a clear centerpiece who, while raw, would likely be good right away, with major upside for years to come. Rai impressed right away with her three-point stroke, and the Pumas had a promising one-two scoring punch. With only three players, they were still hardly past square one, but the chemistry and belief were developing nicely.

"It was really nerve-racking only seeing three people at first," said Latif. "We didn't know what it would build up to. I didn't know them, I didn't know anything about this school, but when I saw them and their love for the game, it reciprocated the way I love the game and really got me excited."

Rio spearheaded the effort to get other Northridge students to come out for basketball. Aubrey Cruz and Estrella Alejo entered the fold late in the summer, giving them five players and some positional variety heading into the new school year.

All that was missing was a point guard and depth. Northridge got its point guard as soon as school started when sophomore Priscilla Perez joined the team. Three more players eventually joined, and while only having nine players was not ideal, the Pumas were ready to go. 

"Once I saw Priscilla's speed, athleticism, toughness, that's when I said, 'we're gonna be pretty good,'" said Kindel.

By that point, Kindel was happy with the raw potential of his group, which only had one senior. He was quite confident in the long-run foundation they were laying. But because none of the players played in 2020-21 besides Latif on her eighth grade club team, he wasn't sure if they'd be ready to make noise in their inaugural season.

Kindel's hopes for a strong first season skyrocketed in the fall when he saw his players' dedication in practicing and conditioning for 8-10 hours per week.

"I walked into this situation not knowing if they cared, if they worked hard, or who they were at all," said Kindel. "When I saw the kids start showing up in the summer and the fall, it showed me that these girls are serious."

"The fall is usually when teams are playing fall league games, that's when you build chemistry. But for us it was all after-school workouts, conditioning, team bonding, a lot of skill work," Kindel said. 

"Many of my players had never really been on a school team before. Coming away from the pandemic, and these girls not having a basketball season a year prior, they needed to get back in the swing of things, so that's all we did."

"The goal for the first year was just to get better and build a team unit, team chemistry, a foundation," said Kindel. "Not to win every game."

"But in October, right before official practice started, [we played] a fall league game against Santa Paula and we beat them by double-digits," said Kindel. "When that happened I was like, we can win a league title and go far in the playoffs."

The Pumas would win almost every game in 2021-22. In fact, they had by many accounts the best season in program history. 

Northridge went 14-2 - the best winning percentage in school history - and 9-0 in conference play to sweep the Valley League. The Pumas were awarded the third seed in the Division 2 playoffs and got a bye in the first round for the first time in school history. They defeated Lincoln 58-29 to make their first ever quarterfinals appearance at the Division 2 level before falling to Wilson.

Mahawan emerged as one of the SGs in Division 2 and was named the L.A. City Section Valley League Player of the Year, Latif made First Team All-League and All-CIFLACS Division 2 after averaging more than 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, and Perez and Alejo were both All-League Honorable Mentions. Kindel was named the Valley League Coach of the Year as well.

"I saw we could do an extended 2-3 zone with trapping," said Kindel. "Defense was our strongpoint, it's what carried us. We held a lot of teams to under 30, 40 points per game."

Kindel had previously gone 118-5 as the JV head coach at LACS powerhouse Granada Hills Charter, where he was also the varsity assistant under Jared Honig for five WVL titles. In the 2021 spring season, Kindel's only year at Santa Clara (Oxnard), he guided the Saints to an unbeaten league title run in the Tri-Valley League, and was named Coach of the Year of the league and the entire Tri-County Athletic Association, which represents multiple leagues.

Despite the great fit at Santa Clara, he left due to personal reasons unrelated to the school, and the former El Camino Real hooper returned to his LACS roots.

Now, Northridge has a year to gear up for another run with its full core intact.

"Knowing that we'll still have our core group next year, and just to be able to build on the momentum [of] this season, that's really exciting," said Rai Mahawan.

"This team broke a lot of records for this school," said Kindel.

"They went on a 10-game win streak, most in school history, best winning percentage in school history, ranked 19th in City Section which is highest in school history. A group of young kids who mostly had not even played high school basketball, or school basketball at all, had a special season and made it memorable, and they all come back. It's exciting. The bar has been set."

Kindel, Latif, and Mahawan all point to the family-like culture they started building long before the team had all the personnel of a contender.

"I saw great potential because these girls listened and worked hard and didn't have an ego," said Kindel.

"I always say that they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, and then they'll run through a brick wall for you. If they're also all close off the court, then they're almost impossible to stop on the court."