Three steps back, one giant leap forward.

That might best describe this season for the Mater Dei girls’ basketball team, which lost three all-league players from last year’s underachieving squad when they transferred to other schools in the offseason. The Monarchs might be a little lighter when it comes to overall talent, but they seem better in the long run.

“We won a lot of games last year, but we didn’t have good chemistry. We didn’t have good leadership,” says Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan. “Sometimes, subtraction is OK. We’re not as talented, but we work better together and so it’s more fun.”

The cupboards are hardly bare at Mater Dei.

Katie Lou Samuelson, a 6-3 senior wing who has signed with collegiate powerhouse Connecticut, is the top-ranked high school player in the country, according to ESPN. She’s flanked by four-year starting point guard Andee Velasco and her sister Bianca, who have signed with Loyola Marymount, and 6-3 junior forward Ally Rosenblum, who has committed to UCLA.

We started off kind of slow when we lost in our first tournament, but I think it was probably the best time for us to lose.

—Katie Lou Samuelson

Kiernan said Samuelson and Andee Velasco not only have provided superior play, but they’ve stepped up their leadership roles on a roster that’s half full of freshmen and sophomores.

“They’ve been doing it every day in practice,” Kiernan says of their leadership. “Last year it was, like, every man for himself.”

The Monarchs were 26-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today last March when they ran into Los Angeles Windward in the championship game of the CIF Southern Section Open Division. They suffered a shocking 61-46 loss. Eleven days later, their season came to an abrupt end with another double-digit loss, this time to Long Beach Poly in a Southern California regional semifinal.

When this fall rolled around, first-team all-Trinity League sophomore guard Jayde Woods had transferred to Windward and second-teamers Neah Odom (Chaminade) and Cheyenne Allen (St. Anthony) also were starting their senior years elsewhere.

“We kind of just tried to treat it like a senior leaving,” Samuelson says of the adjustment to the transfers. “Someone is always going to leave, every single year, so you’ve just got to go with what you have.”

Mater Dei’s only loss through Jan. 12 was by one point against Odom and Chaminade in the championship game of the Palisades Beach Invitational on Nov. 29. The Monarchs came back to win the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix just before Christmas, beating a team from Murfreesboro, Tenn. that came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN and No. 7 by USA Today. Mater Dei came in No. 4 and No. 17, respectively.

“We started off kind of slow when we lost in our first tournament, but I think it was probably the best time for us to lose,” Samuelson says. “We really learned from then, and just came out in Arizona and won one of the biggest tournaments in the country.”

Even with the loss of the three transfers, Samuelson says she hasn’t felt the need to shoot the ball more this season. She scored 36 points in the win against Blackman but is just as comfortable scoring five points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Samuelson says she’s definitely playing closer to the rim this season.

“I think I’ve gotten stronger,” she says.

It appears the same can be said of the Monarchs as a whole.