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2014-2015 BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEW Middle of Suburban League to be tight again while Gahr looks for consistency

By Loren Kopff

Since Artesia went through its championship runs from the 2004-2005 season to the 2006-2007 campaign, Mayfair has been the top dogs of the Suburban League. While the Monsoons are still the favorites, along with La Mirada, three area league teams feel they have a shot of moving closer to the top. Gahr is once again seeking its first San Gabriel Valley League crown since 2010 while Valley Christian is primed for a big season with its most experienced teams in several years.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

17-11 overall last season, 5-7 in the Suburban League, tied for fourth place, lost to Gladstone 50-41 in the Division III-A second round playoffs.

Head coach: Ray Walker (third season, 26-30)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 59-77

Last time missed the playoffs: 1981

STARTERS LOST: Jon Campbell (7.9 points per game last season), Korey Joseph (4.9 ppg.), Brandon Paris (7.4 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Dontae Smith (11.3 ppg.), SR Akil Williams (4.1 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Chris Pendley

Head coach Ray Walker hoped his team’s fast start last December would continue once Suburban League action began. But the Pioneers finished the season 5-9 after winning their first six of the season and 12 of their first 14. Walker said the early confidence of winning games helped prepare the team for league.

“It was important because there had not been a winning season since 2007,” Walker said. “Any type of success that we can have we appreciate it. We wanted to make sure we could get [those wins]. It was important to win those couple of tournaments and start the season out correctly.”

Artesia graduated half a dozen seniors and two other players who would have returned, are not back. So, Walker has to build around three returning players including senior Dontae Smith, one of the league’s top players. But Walker is more concerned about the improvement from senior Akil Williams, who was more of a defensive player last season but could be another double-digit scorer to complement Smith.

“This year we’re going to count on him a lot more to score,” Walker said of Williams. “He’s a key defensive player for us and this year, he’s going to be a starter.”

Walker admits his team might struggle this year with all of the young newcomers, but is insistent that the future looks bright. That future begins with, among others, junior Semaje Chatman, junior point guard Martin Villeses, sophomore Bryan Hughing, sophomore point guard Alex Linao and sophomore Devion Smith, a 6’4” post player who was the freshmen most valuable player. Since its last league title, Artesia hasn’t finished higher than fourth place.

“I don’t know how many wins we’re going to end up getting,” Walker said. “I think we’re going to be competitive. I don’t think we’re going to have enough to blow people out. But I also know we’re going to be talented enough and have enough to be in every game.”

CERRITOS DONS

14-13 overall last season, 7-5 in the Suburban League, third place, lost to Arroyo Grande 65-41 in the Division II-A first round playoffs.

Head coach: Jonathan Watanabe (14th overall, 186-177)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 71-68

Last time missed the playoffs: 2007

STARTERS LOST: Sham Shah, Kelechi Ukoha (10.7 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Henry Buycks (8.4 ppg.), SR J.J. Rivera (4.7 ppg.), JR Evan Leonard (17.1 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Andrew Bui (3.3 ppg.), SR Dante Gilmer, SR Brian Kim, SR Jordan Wong, JR Daniel Kim (3.6 ppg.), JR Brandon Yoon

Longtime Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe picked up a winning season after consecutive seasons of under .500. But the Dons have the potential to win more games and get close to the 20-win mark as nine players return, including three who have been on varsity since they were sophomores. Cerritos was swept by Mayfair and La Mirada and split with Norwalk in which both of those games were decided by a combined seven points.

“We dropped the one over here to Norwalk that I didn’t figure we would do,” Watanabe said. “But again, you have to be ready every game. You just never know what’s going to happen from year to year and game to game. You have to be prepared for everyone.”

The heart and soul for the Dons will be junior Evan Leonard, who has emerged as a serious threat to any league team, as well as any of Cerritos’ other foes. Watanabe says Leonard still has work to do on the defensive end but is improving in all areas and is just a ‘workhorse’. Even though Mayfair and La Mirada has all of the transfer players, Leonard has the potential to be the league’s most valuable player.

“It’s his job to keep working so he is the best player in the league,” Watanabe said. “With other teams bringing players in, it just raises the bar, which actually helps players. I think our players are more motivated to get better because they know they have to be better.”

But it’s not going to be the Evan Leonard show all the time. Seniors Henry Buycks and J.J. Rivera could easily average 10 points a game, or more as the Dons will be using their size to their advantage this season as they will force teams to play at an up-tempo pace. That has been the team’s focus since last spring.

Watanabe says he can go 10 or 11 deep and probably has the deepest and most talented team in his 14 seasons. He adds that senior Andrew Bui is a defensive stopper, senior Brian Kim gives the team a post presence and everyone will play significant minutes.

“In general, we go from a young and inexperienced team to an older, veteran team within a matter of one season,” Watanabe said. “We have all juniors and seniors for the first time in… I can’t even remember. We have nine returners and some good, quality guys coming up. We’re excited about the season. It’s just a matter of can we get to the potential of where we could get to?

“If we put the work in between now and the time league starts, and we play as a team and we’re unselfish, doing the things we need to do, we’re definitely capable of knocking off anybody making a long run,” he later added. “But there’s a big ‘if’.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

15-12 overall last season, 7-3 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for second place, lost to Palos Verdes 78-77 in the first round of the Division III-AA first round playoffs.

Head coach: Ricky Roper (fifth season, 72-45)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 99-51

Last time missed the playoffs: 1997

STARTERS LOST: SR Cory Chavers, Malachi Hoosein (24.9 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Gregory Carlyle (11.7 ppg.), SR Jeremy Carlyle (12.3 ppg.), SR Darrell Harris (8.1 ppg.),

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Andrew Weber, JR Evan Anderson, JR Justin Smith, SO Marvin Bragg

Once again Gahr had a season in which it hovered around .500 as head coach Ricky Roper saw a lot of inconsistency despite having Malachi Hoosein score close to 25 points a game. He said the Gladiators played some special games but didn’t have a special season. This year, he hopes the team will be more consistent as the Gladiators lost just one senior from last season, which was Hoosein.

“We just didn’t get it done,” Roper said. “We were playing our best basketball at the end of the season and we honestly felt like we were going to make a run. It was a very disappointing way to end the season, especially when you look at Brea Olinda, which went to the finals of our division last year and we beat them in a December tournament. Inglewood went to the semifinals of Division I-AA and we beat them.

“I really enjoyed the team last year,” he later said. “So it was disappointing that the season got cut short because we were having a lot of fun. We were working hard.”

One bright spot came towards the end of the season when Gahr gave Downey its lone San Gabriel Valley League loss. But he hopes the vast experience his team has this season will be enough to bring home a league title. Senior brothers Gregory and Jeremy Carlyle, both of whom had great offseasons, will be the leaders as both have the ability to get close to 20 points a game and, according to Roper, are just as good as anybody around. But the team is loaded with senior Darrell Harris and sophomore Marvin Bragg expecting to be emerging stars. Roper says both are very key to the team being very versatile with Bragg being someone people will talk about. Gahr will have eight seniors on the team with half being varsity rookies.

“Malachi was a great competitor and he really worked on his game,” Roper said. “He played [on the junior varsity team] as a sophomore. He kept us competitive for a couple of seasons. But he’s the only guy we lost. Hopefully we’ve learned from last season.”

Gahr’s schedule will be stacked again with its tournament co-hosted with Cerritos ending on Saturday, an appearance in both the tough North Orange County Championships and the MaxPreps Holiday Classic in Palm Springs and single games against Price and Lawndale on the docket before even starting league action, which will be up for grabs again.

“It’s still a pretty good league,” Roper said. “I know Downey and Lynwood will have good teams this year. Paramount is always tough. I’m not sure about Dominguez and Warren.”

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

7-20 overall, 1-11 in the Suburban League, 7th place, lost to La Canada 59-39 in the Division III-A first round playoffs.

Head coach: Wesley Phillips (second season, 8-44)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 19-107

Last time missed the playoffs: 2013

STARTERS LOST: Suni Bedi (11.3 points per game last season), Ardale Encabo (7.3 ppg.), Antonio Lucero (4.8.ppg.), Erich Webb (10.2 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Daniel Morales (10.6 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Alan Solorzano

John Glenn’s first trip to the postseason since 2000 came with mixed reviews. While the nine seniors gladly welcomed the rare opportunity to play a playoff game, head coach Wesley Phillips wished his team had performed much better in the regular season given the high number of upperclassmen.

“I know we played some tough games and we may have earned it that way because we showed some respectability,” Phillips said. “But as far as the record is concerned [it] was not deserving.”

Now, the Eagles are facing a major uphill battle with only two returning players with senior Daniel Morales clearly the go-to player as he reached double figures 17 times and scored a career-high 29 points at Bellflower. Although senior Alan Solorzano scored 15 points all of last season, Phillips is counting on his returners.

“Their leadership is very important and they have to act as such,” Phillips said. “You have to walk the walk and talk the talk. We have a lot of youth here and if they don’t lead them, there’s no telling what’s going to happen.”

Glenn will have 10 players on varsity this season with senior Javier Avalos, junior Nathan Lopez, who was the junior varsity most valuable player last season, and sophomores Hugo Aguiano, Sean Espineda, six-footer Cruz Gomez and Josh Verduzco the top varsity rookies.

Phillips is not counting this as a rebuilding season but has high expectations and believes this is a year in which the team can actually take fourth place.

“It’s a challenge, but all of this youth that we coming and all of the players we have on varsity now should be on [the junior varsity team],” Phillips said. “But for some reason, I’m kind of optimistic about what could happen. But I was that way last year, too. For some reason, I think our role players will be exactly that.”

NORWALK LANCERS

11-17 overall last season, 5-7 in the Suburban League, tied for third place in the Suburban League, lost to Colony 66-42 in the Division II-A first round playoffs.

Head coach: Jim Webster: (13th season, 85-106)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 63-77

Last time missed the playoffs: 2012

STARTERS LOST: Dante Foster (6.7 points per game last season), Rashaad Penny (9.4 ppg. In 17 games), Alex Vidana (11.1 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: JR David Suarez (5.7 ppg.), JR Keno Valdenor (8.3 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Ishmael Townsend, JR Omar Tinoco, SO Jordan Volpei

Despite Norwalk finishing six games under .500 after a season in which it had a winning mark for the fourth times in the prior five seasons, veteran head coach Jim Webster still saw a silver lining. The Lancers played nearly the first third of the season without two of their leading scorers, who were still involved with the football team, and went 4-6 in those games. Once Suburban League action began, the Lancers started off 1-4 with all five games being decided by three points or less.

“Last season, we missed Rashaad Penny and Dante Foster for the first six or seven games,” Webster said. “So when they came in, we had a transition period. Even though we struggled the first round of league, we had four games that were [lost by] three points or less. We played really well down the stretch and we played well in the first round. We just couldn’t close games out.”

This season, Norwalk will be young again with only two seniors, Ishmael Townsend, who scored 66 points, and newcomer Mark Roca. That doesn’t concern Webster, who says his team will be able to handle the ball and handle pressure. Norwalk will be trying to build its game inside out and will have to make outside shots in order to stay in its games and/or win them.

Juniors David Suarez and Keno Valdenor will have to be the leaders as they are projected to get the majority of the shots. If they’re on their game, they can reach double figures. But look for sophomore Jordan Volpei to be the highest percentage shooter. The top varsity newcomers are all juniors-Greg Deed, Emmanuel Lateju and Rudy Tellez.

“Hopefully we’re competing for third,” Webster said. “I think Bellflower has improved, from what I hear. It’s always tough; every game is always tough. Who knows how your kids show up? If we can keep improving and peak at the right time, we’ll get a good run in league and maybe upset someone at the top and finish in the top three.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS

11-17 overall last season, 2-6 in the Olympic League, fourth place, lost to Crespi 57-37 in the Division IV-AA second round playoffs.

Head coach: Bryan Branderhorst (ninth season, 118-106)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 55-81

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Brian Bischoff (3.9 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: JR Stedmon Bryant (10.1 ppg.), JR Ronald Massey (5.9 ppg.), JR Jordan Mitchell (6.6. ppg.), JR Vaj Rice (10.9 ppg.),

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Kyle Westra, SO Johnny Johnson (6.7 ppg.)

For the fifth straight season, Valley Christian failed to reach .500 and in three of the past four seasons, the Crusaders finished in fourth place in a very tough Olympic League. But V.C. advanced to the playoffs and for the second time in the past three seasons, moved on to the second round.

“You kind of are what your record is in the end,” said V.C. head coach Bryan Branderhorst. “I’m not going to say we’re better than our record or anything [like that]. But coming off of last season, we took some lumps. We are in a very good league and it will continue to be a very good league this year. It’s very thick with talent at the top.”

V.C. had two seniors on last season’s team and will have one this year in Kyle Westra. Still, Branderhorst feels his team is experienced even though on paper, they are young 10 juniors and three sophomores on the squad.

Juniors Stedmon Bryant and Vaj Rice will be pacing the Crusaders but look for fellow 11th graders Ronald Massey and Jordan Mitchell to score a little bit more to give the Crusaders probably their best starting rotation in quite some time to go along with the deepest and most athletic team Branderhorst has ever had. This will be Bryant’s and Rice’s third season on varsity.

“We’re excited about our two lefty’s coming back, one inside and one outside,” Branderhorst said of Bryant and Rice. “Both are all-league guys for us last year. This year they’ll be big contributors for us again.”

Branderhorst says Massey will surprise some people as he has developed his game and will be tough to stop. He added that this season will be a fluid situation with a lot of guys coming from the junior varsity team. Sophomore Aaron Purnell will play a lot of minutes and can play inside or outside and is also an aggressive rebounder. The same goes for sophomore Jalen Hines. Junior Robert Downs, fresh off the football team is another varsity newcomer to keep an eye on.

As far as competing with the league powers, Branderhorst says his team just has to grind every night and come out and play. Don’t be surprised if the Crusaders are able to split with one of the tougher teams. After all, they knocked off John Muir in the first round of the playoffs on the road.

“It’s a really challenging league,” Branderhorst said. “We have a couple of teams who are likely to be in the Open Division again [for the playoffs]. I would guess Maranatha will actually be a heavy favorite with the addition of Tyler Dorsey from St. John Bosco and [Trevor] Stanback from Chaminade, a 6’ 10” center. Village [Christian] is always bringing new guys in to go along with Bennie Boatwright, who has just committed to USC. There’s a lot of PAC-12 caliber talent in our league. We’re excited about that. That motivates us and inspires us to get better all the time.”

WHITNEY WILDCATS

8-16 overall last season, 4-8 in the Academy League, fifth place.

Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (eighth season, 87-89)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 75-55

Last time made the playoffs: 2013

STARTERS LOST: Justin Kwon (5.7 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Tim Han (5.7 ppg.), SR Antony Thomas (7.5 ppg.), JR Michael Hamakawa, JR K.J. Hardrict (5.3 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Turath Liebenau, SR David Lu, SR Jeremy Simbol, JR Luigi Gonzales, JR Jason Yoon

After five straight seasons of going to the playoffs, Whitney stumbled to its worst record since the 2007-2008 season. Head coach Ruben Guerrero considered last season as a rebuilding one with five sophomores and five juniors along with a pair of seniors. It was easy to see why Guerrero didn’t even bother applying for an at-large playoff bid.

“In the past, I’ve always felt that if we don’t earn a spot, we don’t belong there, especially with our division being so tough,” Guerrero said. “To take an at-large bid and then end up at JSerra or at Harvard-Westlake…it wouldn’t be fun for anybody. So, with that happening, we just let the season ride out.”

Last season, the Wildcats learned a lot and were in a lot of games, but just couldn’t finish. This season, the Wildcats should be a tad bit better, but not quite ready to take home the Academy League championship. Guerrero said he’s very hopeful of this season as the ‘Cats return four starters and five other players. Senior Antony Thomas led the team in scoring but after that, Whitney had a balanced team as there was no one go-to player or standout. Thomas does have the potential to score at least 10 points a game.

“I believe so,” Guerrero said. “His problem last year was he wanted to be an all-around team player, which is fine. And a lot of [the team] struggled with that. They all wanted to make that extra pass and a lot of times they were passing up on open looks. This summer, we pushed the scoring aspect of it. I tell the guys, if you’re within the three-point line and you get a wide open look, take the shot. I’m not going to be upset whether you make or miss it.”

Guerrero added that he wants the scoring to come from everybody but is looking for Thomas and senior Tim Han to be more of the glue that keeps the team together. Sophomores Ben Barnett, Peter Kang and freshman Heaven Flores are the only newcomers to varsity. As far as making the playoffs, Guerrero believes that could happen.

“If they look to score and they’re more offensive-minded, I believe they can,” he said. “I don’t really put anything on paper. I put all of our playbooks on YouTube so the guys can review them. One of the boys asked me, ‘hey coach, can you e-mail the team the plays’. I said yes but the problem is there’s no playbook for hustle. There’s no playbook to compete. That’s one area our team lacks-just competing on a consistent basis.”

 

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