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2012-2013 BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Suburban League to be wide open after top spot

By Loren Kopff

La Mirada has been tabbed as the favorite to win the Suburban League, supplanting Mayfair’s recent dominance. But after that, it’s anyone’s guess as to where the other six teams will finish. Several teams will be facing inexperience issues while Artesia and John Glenn will have new coaches. Gahr, missing two key players who transferred out, will try to stay close to the top of the San Gabriel Valley League and Valley Christian aims for a major upset over a defending state champion.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

8-18 overall record last season, 4-8 in the Suburban League, fifth place, lost to Alemany 87-61 in the Division III-A first round

Head coach: Ray Walker (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 53-81

Last time missed the playoffs: 1981

STARTERS LOST

Santiago Fajardo (12.1 points per game), James Floyd (8.6 ppg), SR Alex Hart (5.6 ppg.), Eddie Lindsey 4.7 ppg.), Cameron McGlothen (15.1 ppg.)

STARTER RETURNING

None

OTHERS RETURNING

SR Ronnie Cadiente, JR A.J. Benson

Despite extending its playoff appearance streak to 31 years, Artesia went through its fifth straight non-winning campaign last season. Now, former Downey girls basketball head coach Ray Walker takes over for Greg Taylor and hopes his success at Downey will spill over to the Artesia boys. Last season, Walker guided the Vikings to a quarterfinal berth but has also coached boys basketball at different places for 16 seasons before going to Downey.

“I’m excited,” Walker said. “Obviously the name on the jersey carries some significance. But it’s a different program now and I’m excited for us to move forward. It should be an exciting year.”

It will definitely be an uphill battle for Walker as the Pioneers don’t have a returning starter coming back. Only senior point guard Ronnie Cadiente and junior A.J. Benson, who will be a two-guard in the three spot, are coming back. Walker said both of them bring enthusiasm to practice every day and they are the cornerstones to what Artesia High is trying to build.

The Pioneers will field 13 players with seniors Francisco Galan and J.T. Rodriguez, a transfer from Red Oak High School in Texas, and sophomore Dontae Smith projected to be the top varsity newcomers.

“It’s going to be tough,” Walker said. “We’re pretty athletic; we have some quickness. Defense is going to be our strength and we’re working on it every day. We’re a lot better than we were in the summer.”

With the Suburban League so wide open after the top spot, Walker feels his team will be in the mix to make it a 32nd straight trip to the postseason. The Pioneers have finished either fourth or fifth in league for five straight seasons after winning league the previous three seasons.

“I’ve seen a lot of teams in the summer and I’m hoping we can be in the middle of the pack,” Walker said. “It’s not just a new system [we’re running]. We have a lot of players who have never played varsity basketball and some who have never played basketball at all. It’s definitely a different transition.”

CERRITOS DONS

12-15 overall record last season, 6-6 in the Suburban League, fourth place, lost to Bonita 80-28 in the Division III-AAA first round

Head coach: Jonathan Watanabe (11th full season as head coach, 149-133, 12th overall, 161-148)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 80-61

Last time missed the playoffs: 2007

STARTERS LOST

Terrence Fulton (22.2 points per game, 21 games), Jacob Badillo (9.5 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING

SR Dylan Hirata (3.8 ppg.), SR Elijah Leonard (5.2 ppg.), SR Bryan Tong (7.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING

SR Ruben Cuatrona, SR Deemal Patal

Everything was looking fine for Jonathan Watanabe’s team until the final two weeks of the regular season when he was dealt with some off the court issues involving his leading scorer and leading rebounder. The Dons had their first losing record since the 2006-2007 season but all wasn’t lost according to the longtime head coach.

“It wasn’t frustrating to the point on the court,” Watanabe said. “It was more the off the court issues. As a basketball coach you want to be able to coach the team and last year I wasn’t able to put my full attention to coaching. When you have to deal with off the court issues, it just makes it worth not as fun.”

Seniors Dylan Hirata, Elijah Leonard and Bryan Tong all have three years experience being on the varsity squad and with seniors Ruben Cuatrona and Deemal Patel also coming back, the Dons could make a serious look at a very high spot in league. Patel stepped up nicely in the final few weeks of the regular season and was an All-League Honorable Mention player. Senior Steven Awada, the most valuable player on the junior varsity team and freshman Evan Leonard will be fighting for starting spots. Watanabe said Evan Leonard is the best freshman he has seen during his time at Cerritos.

“If we’re going to be successful, we’re going to be a team with balance,” Watanabe said. “We need multiple guys chipping in with double digit scoring. We need a lot of help on the boards. That’s the biggest concern.”

Cerritos finished in second place two seasons ago and advanced to the quarterfinals and Watanabe says his team will put up a good fight with La Mirada and Mayfair, who are favored to stay at the top.

“From a talent standpoint, La Mirada has brought in a number of players who are going to put them at a talent level above everyone else,” Watanabe said. “Mayfair always has athletes and I know they’ve lost a few but obviously they’ve brought in a few guys as well. We’re going to battle. We’re going to see how it goes and we’re going to use the whole idea of being a better team.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

17-12 overall last season, 6-4 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for second place, lost to Etiwanda 60-52 in the Division I-AA second round

Head coach: Ricky Roper (third season, 43-20)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 108-51

Last time missed the playoffs: 1997

STARTERS LOST

Josh Benson (9.1 points per game), SR Kyle Benton (12.1 ppg.), Anthony Martinez (16.2), SR Brian Nebo (12.8 ppg.), Davian Thomas (7.0 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING

None

OTHERS RETURNING

SR Ryan Hart, SR Bryce Hogan, SR Cory Johnson, JR Malachi Hoosein

For the most part, Gahr handled life in Division I-AA pretty well and was a few baskets away from moving on to the quarterfinals. But it was the offseason that didn’t set too well with head coach Ricky Roper. Seniors Kyle Benton (St. Anthony) and Brian Nebo (St. John Bosco) transferred out, leaving the Gladiators with no returning players.

“Last year was kind of up and down,” Roper said. “We went undefeated in Arizona and won a tournament out there. Then we started out 1-3 in league. Then we got it together and finished in second place. People were down on our season last year. We beat Ventura [in the playoffs] on the road, who was 22-4 and we were down by four with a minute to go against Etiwanda, which is the number three team in the state. If we beat them, then we play Poly in the semifinals. For me, it was a pretty successful year.”

Roper feels he still has a team worthy of battling for a San Gabriel Valley League title. Gahr has finished in second place in Roper’s first two seasons at Gahr. Coming back are seniors Ryan Hart, Bryce Hogan and Cory Johnson as well as junior Malachi Hoosein. The top varsity rookies are seniors Chudi Ibe and Desean Miller and junior David Murrell. Roper says the offensive output will have to be a collective effort but the team is already ahead of where he thought it would be by now.

“This year, we’re going to play a lot of guys,” Roper said. “We’re going to play nine to 10 people. We played well in the summer and we played well in the fall. It’s just that summer league and fall league…competing there and competing in January and February is different. The guys we have competed real hard in the summer and competed real hard in the fall.

“They’ve done a great job in the offseason leading our workouts and getting the guys to understand what varsity basketball is all about,” Roper added. “Obviously this program has been successful the last five or six years, so they’ve set a good example of what it takes [to win].”

Although Gahr had a share for second place, it went 6-4 in league last season. With that said, going 10-0 or even 9-1 will be a tall order. Since the 2006-2007 season, Gahr has finished 9-1 once and 8-2 twice.

“Our league is just tough,” Roper said. “Some leagues usually come down to two teams, and then you have some [easy] games. But in our league, you have to play 10 really good games to win league. I think it’s pretty wide open. We feel like we can play with anybody but we wouldn’t feel like we’re favored against anybody.”

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

3-23 overall last season, 1-11 in the Suburban League, seventh place

Head coach: Wesley Phillips (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 17-109

Last time made the playoffs: 2000

STARTERS LOST

Daryl Almirol (8.6 points per game), Anthony Escobar (4.6 ppg.), Robert King (11.3 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING

JR Ardale Encabo (8.1 ppg.), JR Erich Webb (9.1 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING

SR David Newman, SR Semajay Solomon, JR Myles Ferguson

The coaching turnover continues at John Glenn as Wesley Phillips becomes the school’s sixth head coach this decade. While this is his first boys coaching job, Phillips was leading the Glenn junior varsity girls team several years ago and was an assistant to current Norwalk girls head coach Richard Drake over 10 years ago when Drake was coaching at Glenn.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Phillips said. “I tried to get on last year but they hired [former head coach] Barry [Migliorini]. The kids wanted me to coach them and I took that on as a motivational thing for me.”

Glenn has finished in seventh place for four straight seasons and eight of the last 11 and has reached double digits in victories once in at least the past 15 seasons. For Phillips and the Glenn program, the only way to go is up.

“I’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve seen it all,” Phillips said. “What I can give this program is hands-on [experience]. The last three coaches who have been here were X’s and O’s [coaches]. These kids know me and they know that I can play the game. I can give them that on the court and off the court hands-on experience and they wanted that.”

Juniors Ardale Encabo and Erich Webb bring the Eagles plenty of scoring experience but Phillips says the team could see as many as four players score in double figures. Juniors Sunny Bedi, who split time between the varsity and junior varsity team last season and Jeremy Cristobal, who has never played competitive basketball at Glenn before, are players to keep an eye on. Those four players will bring a lot of perimeter shooting to the team. Sophomore Daniel Morales will be the team’s center.

“I keep saying to them and to myself, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Phillips said. “My expectations are high this year but even higher next year. All of them will be seniors [next year]. They will have a whole year to get good, to get awesome, and to get better. I see us battling for a playoff spot.”

NORWALK LANCERS

6-21 overall last season, 2-10 in the Suburban League, sixth place

Head coach: Jim Webster (11th season, 95-170)

Team’s record previous season: 59-76

Last time made the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST

Angel Flores (9.5 points per game), Ondre Rissling (3.6 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING

SR Erick Flores (4.3 ppg.), SR Michael Rocha (6.0 ppg.), JR Alexis Vidana

OTHERS RETURNING

SR Jonathan Olvera, SR Ralph Wormley, JR Rashaad Penny

After taking the Lancers to the playoffs for three straight seasons, Norwalk head coach Jim Webster endured his worst season since 2004-2005 as the talent level has taken a step back. Norwalk was lacking guard experience and the shooting percentage was down. Norwalk lost its league opener to Glenn 67-64, then two days later fell to Bellflower 56-55. The season ended with a 57-54 setback to La Mirada.

“Obviously I would have hoped to have done better in league,” Webster said. “It’s always about preparing for league and trying to make the playoffs. The positive thing is…we lost four games by a total of 10 or 12 points and to teams that made the playoffs. We were there in some close games and we weren’t able to win them.”

What Norwalk has this season is experience with returning senior starters Erick Flores and Michael Rocha and junior returning starter Alexis Vidana as well as senior Jonathan Olvera and Ralph Wormley and junior Rashaad Penny. The top two newcomers are seniors David Alvarez, a point guard who will probably be the first one off the bench and Ron Angel.

“We’re definitely looking for Mike and Johnny Olvera to do primarily all of the ball handling, which we need” Webster said. “We’re looking for Alex to take the critical shots. If we’re looking for a three or the deep shot, he’s going to be the one to take it. Eric and Ralph are primarily post play, defensively and offensively. We’re not very big otherwise and we need them to stay out of foul trouble.”

“We’re looking to improve weekly and hopefully we can peak in January,” Webster later added. “Our preseason…we’re going to play good teams and we’re going to play average teams. We’re going to have opportunities to win some games. It’s there for us to win some games if we’re playing well. If we’re progressing like I hope we are, by the end of December hopefully we have seven or eight wins.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS

12-16 overall last season, 4-4 in the Olympic League, third place, lost to Ontario Christian 60-57 in the Division IV-A second round

Head coach: Bryan Branderhorst (seventh season, 96-73)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 74-66

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST

Cole Clark (14.3 points per game), Bruce Hudley (4.7 ppg.), Jordan Rhodes (3.8 ppg.), Anthony Roldan (12.3 ppg.)

STARTER RETURNING

SR Caleb Miller (7.4 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING

SR Clayton Granch, SR Wes Hoogenboom, SR Dylan Koomees, SR Chris Miller, SR Nico Morandini

It was another sub-par season for Valley Christian and head coach Bryan Branderhorst who returned to the playoffs after missing the playoffs the previous season. The team was .500 in the Olympic League and was a three-pointer or two away from advancing to the quarterfinals. But with only one starter coming back plus a plethora of bench players, the Crusaders are looking for its first winning season since the 2007-2008 campaign.

“I felt like in the end, we maxed out with our potential,” Branderhorst said. “We really played as good as we ever could with the pieces we had. I just felt it took a little bit longer than I was hoping to get to that point.”

Senior forward Caleb Miller will be one of the featured players but the one who has really opened the eyes of Branderhorst has been senior guard D.J. Ahana, who will play a ton of minutes and play positions 1-4 as well as guard multiple positions. Branderhorst says Ahana is the most improved player even though this is his first season on varsity. Another player who has improved a lot is junior forward Brian Bischoff, who was a call-up for the playoffs. Branderhorst is projecting Ahana, Bischoff, freshman guard Stedmon Bryant, Caleb Miller and senior guard Nico Morandini to be his starters. Senior guard Chris Miller could also start. The Crusaders will have more balanced scoring with a lot of guys averaging around 10 points a game.

“This is the most experienced team I’ve had in quite a while,” Branderhorst said. “A lot of them played varsity last year and a lot of them got significant minutes. But beyond that, all of them have been in our system for four years. So, they’ve been running the same thing from freshman to j.v. to varsity. Our execution is ahead of schedule because of that.”

As far as the playoffs and a possible Olympic League title go, it will be difficult to supplant defending league champion Village Christian for the top spot. But Branderhorst says his team will give it a serious run.

“We’re going to compete like crazy and I look forward to playing them,” Branderhorst said. “Maranatha still has Jeremy Major, the returning league MVP who is going to Pepperdine. He’s very good. The way CIF is and the new [transfer] rule, you can’t just trust what you saw last year. I would have thought Village would be a fourth place league finisher last year, and then they bring in four new guys. To project [the] league [champion] is really hard.”

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