Stacked at the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards is a five-story structure that houses a championship tradition not well known to the outside world. It is here that Sinai Akiba Academy has taken its athletics program, which was once almost kicked out of its league, to 28 league championship wins in the last 13 years.
Most of the Westside Conservative day school’s success has come in girls basketball, including its latest title. On Nov. 21, the varsity basketball team comprising six eighth-graders and three seventh-graders beat Holy Martyrs of Encino 41-39 to win the San Fernando Valley Private School League. Audrey Mokhtarzadeh scored the game-winning basket and was named the final’s MVP, according to coach Allen Foster.
In addition to eighth-grader Shaya Rosen, the team’s MVP, Sinai Akiba had height in the middle with 5-foot-9 Lauren Halimi, a fellow eighth-grader. She blocked shots, grabbed rebounds and started fast breaks. Seventh-grader Leeor Abutbul cracked the starting lineup because there wasn’t much she couldn’t do along the baseline, Foster said. It was her 15 third-quarter points in the semifinals against Faith Baptist of Canoga Park that got Sinai Akiba to the final.
“She’s like Larry Bird,” Foster said. “You need shots at the end of the game, she’s the one.”
Championships are common among this group. Halimi, Mokhtarzadeh, Rosen, Kiana Dadbin and Kaylen Mahboubian won as fifth- and sixth-graders, too. Foster credited their familiarity and their will to win as critical to this title.
Also on the latest title-winning team were eighth-grader Lauren Soroudi, plus seventh-graders Karin Harel and Brittany Moalemzadeh.
The story of the school’s success traces to the arrival of James Taylor as athletic director 13 years ago. Taylor, who is not Jewish, arrived after a successful stint at the former Hillcrest Christian in Granada Hills. He coached against Sinai Akiba teams, so he knew how the school handled sports: not so well. The gymnasiums weren’t padded, which was a liability. The school didn’t send a representative to league meetings, league fees weren’t getting paid, and the teams were noncompetitive.
Taylor said that because league officials knew he was heading to Sinai Akiba, they put the program on probation.
He met with administrators and asked what they wanted to accomplish with the school’s physical education and athletics programs. Officials told him they wanted to improve the facilities and maintain the sports program. Doing that, Taylor said, meant paying to pad the gyms. He also set out to change the mentality from one of entitlement (eighth-graders made the varsity team regardless) to one of merit (he instituted tryouts).
The school, which has 180 students at its middle school, deserves an assist, too, Taylor said. Because Sinai Akiba has no grassy areas and three different gyms — including one funded by comedian Don Rickles — basketball became the most readily available sport for kids to play. (The school also offers flag football, soccer and volleyball; the outdoor sports teams play home games at Balboa Park in Encino.)
Within one year, the school was off probation. In 2001, a sixth-grade girls basketball team won the league title. Now, the walls are filled with championship banners.
Foster said most of these girls will continue playing for Milken Community High School, though some may end up at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. Regardless, he expects the kids to be successful wherever they go.
While Taylor predicts a down year next year — “We’re not the most dominant school in the league,” he said — he’s happy about where things stand.
“Sports is not [our] No. 1 [priority], but it’s a nice addition.”