To fully understand the tears of vindication that flowed from Celia Duran following Estancia High's overtime victory over Tesoro in the title game of the Corona del Mar Tip-Off Tournament on Saturday night, one had to know about the tears that sprung from futility on the court six years previous.
For it is only after one considers how far the Estancia High senior has come in the sport that ultimate appreciation can be conveyed.
"When I was in the sixth grade, I liked soccer," said Duran, the 2012-13 Newport-Mesa Player of the Year, who has been the Eagles' unquestioned leader since her sophomore season. "But my parents had played basketball, so that is kind of why I played. I was terrible. Horrible. Coach Xavier Castellano [the current co-coach of the Eagles who was then in charge of the sixth-grade team], never played me and I would cry. It was sad."
Despite her lack of initial success, Castellano said he saw promise in Duran even then.
"I thought: 'She's tall, maybe one day she'll be OK,'" Castellano said of the 5-7 guard, who scored 24 points to lead the Eagles to the 69-68 win over Tesoro and is averaging 20 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocked shots to help the Eagles open the season 6-0 through Thursday. "When she was in eighth grade, I heard about her and I went to see her play a couple times. She got better."
Castellano said Duran's development was aided by her father, Marcos, who like her mother, Aurora, played on their respective high school teams in Mexico.
"Her dad instilled in her the love of basketball," Castellano said. "He bought her videos and she watched the Lakers. She's one of the few kids I can talk basketball with and she understands what I'm saying."
In addition to honing her ability to shoot, dribble, pass and defend, the former Estancia point guard, who now plays mostly shooting guard, has gained an understanding of the game, and how to help her teammates contribute to a successful team.
"She's a different player, a better player and not just because she is shooting the ball better and we are winning games," Castellano said. "It's understanding little things, like how much she needs her teammates and appreciating all of that. She has grown up a lot since her sophomore year, in basketball and as a young woman. She is taking honors classes, and getting good grades."
Duran said the addition of two transfers has fortified a returning cast that has melded a wide range of abilities together for a sole purpose.
"I feel like our team is so diverse," Duran said. "We have so many players who can do so many different things. We all have specialties, like we have [senior Bryanna Vernon] who is a three-point maniac and Lehua [Alama-Jordan, a senior transfer forward] who is taller and can jump to help Michelle [Simmons] and Eliza [Jason]. And Slade [Garnett, a transfer junior guard] is giving us that lock-down defense. It's really annoying when I play against her in practice, but it's helping us both."
And helping a teammate is a popular pursuit for the Eagles this season, Duran said.
"We have great chemistry and that's so big," Duran said. "I honestly think that's the secret to our success, so far. I have friends on every team you can imagine and I hear how their chemistry is. They don't hang out together and they are not all friends. My team is super close. We have lunch together and we have the craziest team-bonding activities. Lately, we've been watching a lot of scary movies. We are doing a secret Santa [gift exchange] and we are having an ugly [holiday] sweater competition."
Duran said she completes roughly a book a week and likes to read about history and biographies beyond her assignments for AP English. She plans to attend college, but is uncertain whether basketball remains in her future.
"[Playing in college] has never been a goal of mine," said Duran, who has received some recruiting interest from Orange County community college coaches.
But she is working relentlessly to maximize her high school basketball experience, which last year included a 20-8 record, the program's second outright Orange Coast League title in three seasons, and a trip to the CIF Southern Section Division 3A quarterfinals, its deepest postseason run since 1999.
"Last year we had a good team," said Duran, who was an All-CIF performer and league Co-MVP as a junior. "This year, I don't have specific expectations, because I don't even know what we're capable of yet."
Castellano knows Duran is capable of big things as a senior and beyond, on and off the court.
"She's a sweet girl, but on the court, she has a fire in her," Castellano said.
But Duran was more like a fire hydrant after the big win over Tesoro.