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By Loren Kopff
For Artesia, Cerritos, John Glenn and Norwalk, winning a Suburban League championship will be much easier said than done, especially with the flurry of transfer players La Mirada and Mayfair brought in. The same goes for Valley Christian’s shot of taking home an Olympic League crown. Gahr and Whitney face tough tasks in the strong San Gabriel Valley and Academy League’s respectively while John Glenn looks for better results.
9-19 overall record last season, 4-8 in the Suburban League, 6th place, lost to Chaminade 84-30 in the Division III-A first round playoffs.
Head coach: Ray Walker (second season, 9-19)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 54-80
Last time missed the playoffs: 1981
STARTERS LOST: SR A.J. Benson (12.4 points per game last season), Ronnie Cadiente (5.1 ppg.), J.T. Rodriguez (4.1 ppg)
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Jon Campbell (6.4 ppg.), JR Dontae Smith (3.7 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Korey Joseph, JR Akil Williams
It wasn’t the season that head coach Ray Walker had expected in his first season at Artesia. However, the Pioneers did enough to advance to the playoffs for the 32st consecutive season. But Walker says that this upcoming season is night and day from last season; almost opposite from this time last year in a lot of ways.
“From the beginning we knew it was going to be an uphill battle,” Walker said. “When I arrived, we didn’t have basketballs, we didn’t have practice uniforms and we didn’t have a lot of things that most programs have. So it was going to be a rocky road from every standpoint.”
The Pioneers return two starters but lost another one in senior A.J. Benson, who transferred to Pacific Hills. That leaves senior Jon Campbell and junior Dontae Smith to be the strengths of the team. Senior Korey Joseph is slated to be the starting point guard.
“They understand what’s expected of them,” Walker said of his two returning starters. “There’s a lot that’s going to be placed on them. They’re not huge in regards to height, but they’re strong and effective in the post area. We’re going to lean a lot on them.”
Seniors Troy Daniels, Brandon Paris, who is from San Diego and didn’t play last season and Ryan Wheaton along with junior Chris Pendley, a transfer from University High, and sophomore Duryea Harris are the top newcomers.
Artesia will be hosting its own 12-team tournament in the middle of December but once the beginning of February arrives, Walker hopes his team is somewhere in the upper half of the league to grab an automatic playoff berth.
“I think we’ll be in the fight for third place,” Walker said. “We can finish anywhere from third place to seventh.”
11-16 overall last season, 6-6 in the Suburban League, 4th place, lost to Tustin 69-41 in the Division III-AAA first round playoffs.
Head coach: Jonathan Watanabe (12th full season as head coach, 160-149, 13th overall, 172-164)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 75-65
Last time missed the playoffs: 2007
STARTERS LOST: Kriztopher Abundo, Elijah Leonard (9.0 points per game last season), Dylan Hirata (5.6 ppg.), Bryan Tong (7.3 ppg.),
STARTERS RETURNING: SO Evan Leonard (6.1 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Kelechi Ukoha, JR J.J. Rivera (7.3 ppg.), JR Henry Buycks
Despite finishing five games under .500 for the first time since the 2006-2007 season when Cerritos went 10-18 and missed the playoffs, head coach Jonathan Watanabe thought last season wasn’t all that bad. The Dons had nine seniors out of a 13-member squad, made the playoffs and because of that, Watanabe says the seniors left a legacy for this year’s players.
“I thought it was a rewarding season,” Watanabe said. “We just went into it a little bit limited on talent, but high on work ethic, high on character and I thought we got a lot out of it. Our goal last year was to make the playoffs and we were able to do that.”
Watanabe added that last season was a building process for this season. Cerritos will have nine new varsity members with some coming over from the freshman team which won the Suburban League. This season’s team has more talent with better work ethic and is headlined by sophomore Evan Leonard, who was a pleasant surprise last season as Watanabe had never had a freshman on varsity under his watch.
With Leonard, a shooting guard, senior Kelechi Ukoha, who is the leader and team captain, and junior J.J. Rivera, who will start at point guard, the Dons figure to have a strong trio to keep them near the top of the league. Ukoha and junior Henry Buycks are slated to start at the wings while junior Brian Kim will be the center.
Rounding out the rest of the top 10 will be senior Sham Shah, backup guards junior Jordan Wong and sophomore Brandon Yoon, junior Andrew Bui and sophomore Jacob Viray-Tucay.
“This year’s team has the potential to be one of the best in the history of Cerritos High School,” Watanabe said. “Whether we get there will depend on how hard we work each and every day at practice. But the potential is definitely there.”
14-13 overall last season, 5-5 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for third place, lost to Millikan 74-64 in the Division I-A first round playoffs.
Head coach: Ricky Roper (fourth season, 57-33)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 103-55
Last time missed the playoffs: 1997
STARTERS LOST: Bryan Hart (13.2 points per game last season), Bryce Hogan, Cory Johnson (6.0 ppg.), DeSean Miller
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Malachi Hoosein (16.6 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: JR Gregory Carlyle, JR Jeremy Carlyle (6.8 ppg.), JR Darrell Harris, JR Andrew Weber
Gahr has been consistently solid since the turn of the century, even when it finished well below .500 for three straight seasons from 2001-2004. So, when the Gladiators finished one game over .500 last season and even in San Gabriel Valley League action, there wasn’t any panic throughout the Gladiator program.
“We played a tough schedule and then our league was tough,” said head coach Ricky Roper. “We lost a couple of close games. We actually thought we could have finished better, but the kids competed all year. It wasn’t by a lack of effort.”
Five losses last season came by four points or fewer including a pair of overtime setbacks and two of those five were one-point losses. But the Gladiators are better this season thanks to the emergence of senior Malachi Hoosein, who averaged well over 16 points a game last season and reached at least 20 points 10 times.
“Malachi had a good offseason, so we knew he was good,” Roper said. “As far as people outside of our program, he kind of came on the scene and [people] got the opportunity to see what he could do.”
Hoosein, the lone senior, and junior Jeremy Carlyle are the only two returning scorers while juniors Gregory Carlyle (20 points last season), Darrell Harris and Andrew Weber (six points) round out the returning crew. Harris didn’t play last season because of a broken leg but Roper says he’s an inside/outside type of player who is expected to have a good year and complement Hoosein and Jeremy Carlyle in the scoring department.
Another top newcomer, who is projected to be a starter along with Gregory and Jeremy Carlyle, Harris and Hoosein, is sophomore Justin Smith. This season’s team is loaded with underclassmen-nine juniors, four sophomores and one freshman. So, the immediate future looks very bright for Gahr.
“We feel like we have a good team,” Roper said. “But our league is tough. The margin for error in our league is not high. The difference between 5-5 and 8-2 is very slim. Last year we lost a tough one to Downey at the buzzer, we lost a couple of tough ones to Dominguez and Lynwood. Then we actually won a couple of tough ones. We really could have been anywhere from 8-2 to 3-7 last year.”
JOHN GLENN EAGLES
1-24 overall last season, 1-11 in the Suburban League, seventh place.
Head coach: Wesley Phillips (second season, 1-24)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 13-112
Last time made the playoffs: 2000
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Sunny Bedi (7.6 points per game last season), SR Ardale Encabo (7.1 ppg.), SR Antonio Lucero (2.4 ppg.), SR Erich Webb (11.6 ppg.), JR Daniel Morales (6.8 ppg.)
STARTERS LOST: None
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Myles Ferguson
John Glenn’s basketball program has been away from the playoffs the longest out of the area teams. But don’t sleep on the Eagles this season as they return all five starters from last season and are ready to make a strong playoff push. Head coach Wesley Phillips has already won three games from this season’s first tournament and the Eagles are seeking to win more than two Suburban League games for the first time since the 2000-2001 season.
“Oh, it was terrible,” Phillips said of last season. “A week after the season ended, I got these guys right out here [with] strength and conditioning. We had about two months of that. By the time summer rolled around, they were primed and ready to rock and roll, and they did. They won summer and league.”
Glenn went 11-1 during the summer as seniors Ardale Encabo, Myles Ferguson and Antonio Lucero have made the biggest improvements. This is a team that will be centered on its six returning players. Encabo and senior Sunny Bedi are very capable of reaching double digits in scoring, along with senior Erich Webb. But senior Christian Victoriano and junior Alan Solorzano will be the biggest surprises of the newcomers as they both pose a serious threat from three-point territory.
In addition to not performing well in league for the past 13 seasons (11-145), the program is looking for its first double-digit win campaign since the 2006-2007 season (10-17).
“That optimism I had last year is double right now,” Phillips said. “There’s no reason why this group shouldn’t win. They’re hungry, they’re fired up and so am I.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t make the playoffs,” he continued. “I predict us winning at least half of our games in league and we should have about six or seven wins out of preseason.”
15-13 overall last season, 7-5 in the Suburban League, third place, lost to Dos Pueblos 57-33 in the Division II-A first round playoffs.
Head coach: Jim Webster (12th season, 74-89)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 65-72
Last time missed the playoffs: 2012
STARTERS LOST: Johnny Olvera (6.0 points per game last season), Michael Rocha (5.6 ppg.), Ralph Wormley (8.8 ppg.)
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Rashaad Penny (9.6 ppg.), SR Alex Vidana (7.9 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Ryan Davilla, SR Dante Foster, SR Art Sanchez
Norwalk head coach Jim Webster has taken the Lancers to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons after struggling in his first six seasons with the school. The prospects of making it five out of the last six seem good, given that that middle of the Suburban League race remains wide open as was the case last season.
“I think we reached our potential and maybe even exceeded it for the second half of league, which was great” Webster said of last season. “It’s what you work all year for.”
Seniors Rashaad Penny, when he returns from his football obligations, and Alex Vidana are the top two scoring threats coming back. However, Vidana is a little streaky and Webster says, “When he’s hot, he’s pretty tough to guard”. Look for better things from the other three senior returning players-Ryan Davilla, Dante Foster and Art Sanchez. While the bulk of the offense will come from the five seniors, the Lancers are looking ahead to the future with varsity sophomore rookies Enrique Juarez, David Suarez, Omar Tinoco and Keno Valdenor, along with freshman Jordan Volpei.
“We are pretty balanced,” Webster said. “My two new guards…I do need them to score because they are going to take some shots. But if Penny and Dante can lead the way, and if Penny can attack the basket and get to the free throw line and get some easy points, it might open up Alex even more on the outside.”
In five of the past seven seasons, Norwalk has won at least eight games in December, putting itself in great shape to advance to the playoffs even if it doesn’t finish in the top four of the league. But Webster indicates that the week of Jan. 13-17 will be the telling sign of the season. That’s when the Lancers host Bellflower and Cerritos and visit Artesia. That comes after hosting league favorite Mayfair and before going to La Mirada.
“If we reach our potential,” Webster chuckled of finishing high in the league standings. “Last year, we were able to and I told these guys last week, last year’s team was great for about five games. It took a long time to get there.”
VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS
11-16 overall last season, 2-6 in the Olympic League, fourth place, lost to Workman 60-53 in the Division IV-AA first round playoffs.
Head coach: Bryan Branderhorst (eighth season, 107-89)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 58-78
Last time missed the playoffs: 2011
STARTERS LOST: D.J. Ahana (12.3 points per game last season), Dylan Koolmees, Caleb Miller (3.9 ppg.), Chris Miller (4.3 ppg.)
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Brian Bischoff (8.4 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Jeremy Pasiliao, SO Stedman Bryant (6.9 ppg.), SO Vaj Rice
Valley Christian has finished anywhere from four to six games under .500 for four straight seasons but head coach Bryan Branderhorst has made the postseason in six of his seven seasons. Last season can somewhat be attributed to an injury to a key player, but mostly to the strength of the Olympic League.
“Last year was a rough season in terms of injuries,” Branderhorst said. “We had probably one of our most important players in Caleb Miller out for a good chunk of the year with an ankle injury. By the time he was healthy enough to come back, he was not at full strength and we were lacking cohesiveness and all of the things that come with that.
“The Olympic League is really tough,” he added. “Wins are hard to come by. It was one of those years.”
But with the sudden surprise from a pair of sophomores in Stedman Bryant and Vaj Rice, plus leadership of senior returning starter Brian Bischoff, the Crusaders are hoping for no worse than a .500 season. Branderhorst says that Bischoff is “really underrated player in terms of the things he does and that he guards so many positions. He has enough size at 6’ 3” to play post defense and enough quickness to get out and guard perimeter players.”
Bryant’s averages were deceiving and he’s a legitimate all-league player this year, according to Branderhorst. V.C. could see four sophomores in its starting lineup with newcomers Ronald Massey and Jordan Mitchell, the latter being the leading scorer of the junior varsity team last season, Bryant and Rice, along with Bischoff. If anything, the Crusaders have a good amount of size on this season’s team with only one player of the 11 on the team under six feet.
Village Christian, with Bryan Alberts, who has signed to play at Gonzaga University, University of Kansas recruit Bennie Boatwright and Bear Henderson, a Pac-12 recruit, will be the favorites to win the league with the influx of several transfers. Maranatha is expected to be much improved with transfers of its own. So, Branderhorst is hoping his team can make a strong push for the final automatic playoff berth.
“This year, our league is going to be tougher than it was last year,” Branderhorst said. “We put a lot of pressure on our early games. I think you should. I don’t ever get into the philosophy that [nonleague] games count less than league games. They all count towards your [overall] win-loss record. We take our very first game seriously just as much as our last game.”
13-14 overall last season. 5-5 in the Academy League, 3rd place, lost to JSerra 82-35 in the Division IV-AA first round playoffs.
Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (seventh season, 79-73)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 74-52
Last time missed the playoffs: 2008
STARTERS LOST: David Awada (6.4 points per game last season), Joo Lee (7.0 ppg.), Daniel Olea (11.0 ppg.), Anthony Semaan (12.0 ppg.)
STARTERS RETURNING: JR Antony Thomas (5.4 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Kushal Dalal, SR Justin Kwon, JR Tim Han, JR David Lu, SO Luigi Gonzales
From 1997-2008, Whitney made only three trips to the playoffs. But since Ruben Guerrero took over the varsity program in 2007-2008, the Wildcats have made five straight trips to the postseason. The bad news is that once they get there, they don’t last long because of the strength of the division. Figure more of the same this season as the Wildcats hope to stay in the upper half of the Academy League.
“Overall, it was a tough season,” Guerrero said. “We had a large group of seniors and they did their best to work together. That’s the only word I could really come up with…tough. But it still ended well. We’re in Division IV-AA and when we get to the playoffs, it’s almost all for not because we’re going up against teams like JSerra and Harvard-Westlake. It doesn’t seem fair but we still have to deal with it.”
Guerrero said expectations are high for this season but he really doesn’t know what to expect after losing four starters to graduation. He says the chemistry is there but he’s trying to be realistic as he will field his youngest squad ever.
Kushal Dalal and Justin Kwon are the only two seniors while Whitney will have five juniors and five sophomores rounding out the team. Junior Antony Thomas is the leading returning scorer and Guerrero lists sophomores Michael Hamakawa and Jason Yoon as the top newcomers.
“My goal was to just basically make Whitney High School competitive,” Guerrero said. “The two seasons I was here as the [junior varsity] coach, they went [7-18] or something like that. I just figured to get them somewhere in the middle, which would be good for the school and good for the boys overall. Every year we have a goal to finish third or higher in our league and definitely making the playoffs.”
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