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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
If last season was any indication of what is in store for the Cerritos High, Gahr High and Valley Christian High boys basketball teams this season, then it’s quite possible that all three teams could be playing for a California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section divisional championship in early March. All three teams combined to finish 36 games above .500 and that number could be greater this season. John Glenn High, already with a new attitude, welcomes in a new coach while Norwalk High looks to move higher in the Suburban League standings.
12-15 overall last season, 4-8 in the Suburban League, tied for fourth place, lost to Leuzinger 51-44 in the Division III-A first round playoffs
Head coach: Ray Walker (fourth season, 38-45)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 60-77
Last time missed the playoffs: 1981
STARTERS LOST: Dontae Smith (12.5 points per game last season), Chris Pendley (7.9 ppg.), Akil Williams (7.4 ppg,), SR Semaje Chatman (5.4 ppg.), SO Gary Williams (6.7 ppg.)
STARTERS RETURNING: None
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Martin Villeses, JR Rian Hughing, JR Alex Linao, JR Devion Smith
Artesia High head coach Ray Walker thought he would have a team that can stay close to the Suburban League frontrunners. But the losses of two starters, plus a potential key player who was brought up from the junior varsity team at the end of last season curtailed those thoughts.
“I was a little disappointed,” Walker said of last season. “And then in our playoff game, we had a lead and lost in the first round. We thought that was a winnable game for us. We didn’t play as well as we needed to. But overall, it was a good year. There were more positives than negatives.”
Not returning will be seniors Semaje Chatman and Kobe Tupu as well as sophomore Gary Williams, who transferred to Gahr. Now, the Pioneers return only four players from last season’s team and according to Walker, all have improved and will play a lot and will possibly be starters. Of the returning players, senior Martin Villeses scored 69 points while juniors Rian Hughing and Devion Smith scored 81 and 120 points respectively.
The key newcomers will be seniors Lorenzo DeLeon and Isaiah Harris, juniors Zachary Jannane, Kody Pitts and freshman Heder Gladden. Walker says it is frustrating with the lack of returning players, but he still feels confident of the team he has in front of him.
“Yes [it is frustrating], but we’re working hard,” Walker said. “And we had four of them play football. So we haven’t seen them for a couple of months. We’re excited to get going and having everybody now.”
Artesia has moved from Division III-A, which according to Walker was a good fit for the school, to Division IV-AA, which is a much tougher division. In any event, he says he is looking forward to the challenge. As far a high placing in league, that figures to be a taller task.
“I think the league is very strong,” Walker said. “There are quite a few games that can go either way throughout other than the top teams the last couple of years. I know La Mirada and Mayfair have been dominant, and then all the rest of us have been fighting for the next spots. Now, Cerritos has been playing really well.”
17-12 overall last season, 10-2 in the Suburban League, second place in the Suburban League, lost to Hart 68-47 in the Division II-A second round playoffs
Co-head coaches: Kevin Enomoto (first season) and Jonathan Watanabe (15th season overall, 203-189)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 71-69
Last time missed the playoffs: 2007
STARTERS LOST: Andrew Bui (4.2 points per game), Henry Buycks (9.3 ppg.), J.J. Rivera (4.9 ppg.), Jimmy Tsang
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Evan Leonard (21.8 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Trenton Abundo (5.0 ppg.), SR Jaylen Jones, SR Uchenna Nnoli, SR Brandon Yoon
Cerritos has not won a Suburban League title since 1997 and all of the early indications point to the Dons to be celebrating a long-awaited league crown this season. The Dons will be co-coached by longtime head coach Jonathan Watanabe and Kevin Enomoto. Those two have been coaching together for 15 years and are looking to build off of last season’s success. The 10 league wins were the most since Cerritos left the Mission Valley League and joined the Suburban League for the 1998-1999 season. Cerritos was also the only league school to defeat state champion La Mirada High and Mayfair High last season.
“It was a good year,” Watanabe said. “We were one shy of what we wanted to accomplish. But I thought we accomplished a lot last year. We took some big steps forward. To lose out to the state champion is tough. But to also say that we beat the state champion is also nice as well. But again it’s not where we want to be. It’s close but you don’t get anything for being close.”
The heart and soul of this season’s team is senior Evan Leonard, who recently signed a letter of intent to play at the University of California, Irvine. Leonard scored at least 10 points in 27 of 29 games last season including a career-high 42 points against Mayfair on Feb. 2. He also had two 40-point games and scored at least 30 points five other times. With Leonard leading the charge, it’s possible that he could be the league’s most valuable player, especially if the Dons win the league title.
“Those are things that I think will go hand in hand,” Watanabe said. “At least from our league standpoint, it seems that the league M.V.P. typically comes from the league championship team. In order for him to win M.V.P., our team has to win the league championship. It’s not just Evan; our surrounding pieces are very good. We have a really good team this year and I think the unselfishness of the entire team is what’s going to help us to pursue that championship and maybe get over the hump this year.”
But there’s more to Cerritos than Leonard. Watanabe says the other four returning seniors-Trenton Abundo, Jaylen Jones, Uchenna Nnoli, and Brandon Yoon-will join Leonard in the starting rotation and all five will play different roles. Among the newcomers, juniors Timothy En and Jason Fernandez will help the team, according to Watanabe. But he says all six sophomores are a ‘super talented group’, especially sophomore Jyvonnte Moore, who will help the Dons on the board and is a ‘rebound machine’. The other sophomores are Nathan Amanuel, Jason Anigbo, Vincent Briscoe, Destin Flucas and Bryan Sur.
“We love our five returning seniors,” Watanabe said. “All of them have a lot of experience. Then we have a lot of young talent. So we’re trying to blend the two together and use both of them with the experience of the older guys and the talent of the younger guys.”
“Up until now, I’ve been helping him throughout his years as an underclassman,” Enomoto said of Leonard. “I guess my goal this year is to make sure he doesn’t let down. He just continues to get better. It’s not over for him yet, even though he has the scholarship coming. I want him to make sure that he’s on the right path.”
Watanabe added that the 2010 and 2011 teams also had good chances to win the league, just as much of a chance as Cerritos has this season. The Dons came in second place in both of those seasons and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2011. In any event, this season looks to be even better, especially with Enomoto, recently the junior varsity coach, as a co-head coach.
“I’m pretty excited too,” Enomoto said. “That’s why we’re doing this for the first time. This is probably the year that might be the best time to start coaching together. For me, it will be a different tune because it’s the first time on the varsity team on a daily basis. It will be fun.”
“I’ve always asked him if he wanted to come up and coach and he’s always wanted to have his own team,” Watanabe said. “This year I think we both feel that we have a good opportunity to win it all. What he brings is best for this group…and he’ll make a huge impact for us.”
26-8 overall last season, 9-1 in the San Gabriel Valley League, league champions, lost to Sonora 66-54 in the Division III-AA championship game, lost to Cathedral 84-72 in Division III second round state playoffs
Head coach: Ricky Roper (sixth season, 98-53)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 98-53
Last time missed the playoffs: 1997
STARTERS LOST: Gregory Carlyle (15.3 points per game), Jeremy Carlyle (17.6 ppg.), Darrell Harris (6.7 ppg.),
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Justin Smith (6.6 ppg.), JR Marvin Bragg (11.0 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Evan Anderson, JR Tony Crosby
For the third time in the past seven seasons, and second under head coach Ricky Roper, the Gladiators advanced to a divisional championship game. And now, Gahr is hungry for more and looks to surpass last season’s 26-8 mark, something it has done twice in the last five seasons.
“It’s a new journey,” Roper said. “We have a lot of talent and we’re pretty young. We had a successful summer and a successful fall. But right now, just like every year at this time, we’re just focused on getting better.”
For the Gladiators to be as good as or even better than last season, they’ll have to do it without Gregory and Jeremy Carlyle, both of whom combined to average close to 33 points a game. Those two are now showcasing their talents at Trinity International University, a NAIA institution in Deerfield, IL.
“Those guys are special of anyone I have coached at Gahr or at Nogales,” Roper said. “I’m pretty fortunate to have coached a CIF championship team at Gahr. But those two are up there with anybody I’ve coached.”
Now, the torch has been passed on to seniors Evan Anderson and Justin Smith and juniors Marvin Bragg and Tony Crosby, the lone returning players from last season. Roper says Anderson, Bragg and Smith have showed a lot of leadership during the offseason.
Seniors Justin Garrett and De’Jah Pickett, who were on varsity two seasons ago but didn’t play last season due to football injuries, are back this season. Gahr will also get big contributions from a pair of sophomores- Christopher “Scooter” Smith, who is a transfer from Bellflower High, and Gary Williams, who played for Artesia last season.
“Our guys competed really hard in the offseason,” Roper said. “The last three or four years we really challenged ourselves in the summer leagues and fall leagues that we compete in. We’ve played a lot of Open Division-type teams and competed with those types of teams.”
Last season’s San Gabriel Valley League championship was Gahr’s first since 2010 when the Gladiators fell in the semifinals. And just two seasons ago, the Gladiators finished tied for third place with a 5-5 mark. Obviously, the league will be tough again but repeating as league champs and returning to the Honda Center are not out of the question.
“It sounds corny but last year, we knew we could win the CIF championship,” Roper said.
“Obviously we didn’t but we came pretty close. But it’s not something we really talked about. The group we have [this season] is pretty talented. They just don’t have the reps together.
“I love our group; I’m real excited about this group,” he later said. “I think we have the potential to do some great things. I don’t know how we’ll do coming out of the gate, but this is a group that could potentially be playing really well in February.”
JOHN GLENN EAGLES
2-14 overall last season, 1-11 in the Suburban League, seventh place
Head coach: Alfred Sterling (first season)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 18-110
Last time made the playoffs: 2014
STARTERS LOST: Javier Avalos (3.0 points per game), Daniel Morales (7.5 ppg.), Alan Solarzano (3.2 ppg.)
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Nathan Lopez (3.9 ppg.), JR Hugo Anguiano (6.1 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Uriel Trejo, JR Sean Espinoza, JR Cruz Gomez (8.7 ppg.)
It was once again another disappointing season for John Glenn and as a result, the Eagles will have a new head coach, their fourth in the past six seasons. Alfred Sterling, who previously coached at Lakewood High as a junior varsity coach and was the assistant varsity coach for the past four seasons, becomes a head varsity coach for the first time. Sterling says he will bring accountability to Glenn, holding each player accountable for actions on and off the court. He adds that he doesn’t believe in transfers but instead believes in working with what he has and doing things the old fashioned way
“It has always been a lifelong dream of mine to be a head varsity coach,” Sterling said. “And learning from [Valley Christian High girls varsity head coach] Dominic Freeman the ins and outs of doing it, it’s something that has always been a passion of mine. I’m really appreciative of Glenn of giving me an opportunity to lead this program back to where it needs to be.”
Sterling says the biggest thing is trying to get the kids to buy in with another challenge by just teaching them basketball. He continues by saying a lot of these kids haven’t learned the proper way of playing basketball and the proper way of being a part of a team.
The Eagles will return five players from last season’s seventh place team, the seventh straight season that the program has finished in last place in the Suburban League. Junior Hugo Anguiano will be the most experienced and dynamic player while senior Nathan Lopez will have a great role on the team. Sterling says that Lopez will be a great defender and that junior Cruz Gomez will be the anchor on defense and primary option on offense. Junior Sean Espinoza is considered to be the team’s best shooter and will be the backup point guard.
As far as the new players to varsity, Sterling says senior Miguel Chavez will be a main contributor and is a good rebounder. Junior Lucas Aguirre will be the starting point guard and junior Armando Mendoza can be the player who will do it all.
“I kind of wanted a fresh, clean slate when I got here,” Sterling said. “A lot of the players played on the lower levels that have moved up to varsity. It’s not really discouraging; it’s more of a welcoming challenge.”
Glenn has not had a winning record in over 17 seasons and has not finished above fourth place since 2000 when the team won nine games and fell in the first round of the playoffs. The last time Glenn won 10 games was during the 2006-2007 season but lost all 12 league games.
“I think we have enough talent to get to the playoffs,” Sterling said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and I challenge them every day to win the day in practice. If they continue to do that, I think the sky’s the limit for our team. I think we have a great opportunity to shock some people.”
9-18 overall last season, 4-8 in the Suburban League, tied for fourth place, lost to Northwood 57-35 in the Division III-AA first round playoffs
Head coach: Jim Webster (14th season, 130-218)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 56-82
Last time missed the playoffs: 2012
STARTERS LOST: None
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Greg Deed, SR David Suarez (8.3 points per game), SR Omar Tinoco (3.0 ppg.), SR Keno Valdenor (7.4 ppg.), JR Jordan Volpei (10.9 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Manuel Baiza, SR Emmanuel Lateju, SR Rudy Tellez, JR Brendan Schultheis
If it seems like Norwalk has been all over the place in the Suburban League standings over time, it’s because it has. Since the 2007-2008 season, the Lancers have finished everywhere at least once except for first place. Norwalk finished in a tie for fourth place last season, but head coach Jim Webster felt his team could have done better.
“There were about three of four games I think we could have won if we would have had a little bit more experience,” Webster said. “We really didn’t have any seniors that had experience. So that void didn’t help us. But overall, we played a lot of good games.”
If there was a time for the Lancers to make a strong push for one of the top spots that is predicted to be occupied by Cerritos, La Mirada and Mayfair, that time is now. Norwalk returns all five starters and has a solid bench that makes the team a good candidate to win 15-20 games.
All of the returning starters are solid and senior Keno Valdenor has improved his shooting since last month and is starting to gain some confidence, according to Webster. He added that the team has been focusing a lot on defense the last month. But the big player will be junior Jordan Volpei, who shined as a sophomore. Volpei came on strong towards the end of last season, scoring at least 25 points in three straight games from Jan. 30-Feb. 6.
“I think we knew he could score,” Webster said. “That second round of league he showed he could finish the shots that we were getting him. He can definitely score, so hopefully he can continue to do that for the whole season this year.”
Webster says that the other returning players are putting pressure on the starters to stay sharp. New to the varsity squad will be seniors Jose Cruz, Enrique Juarez and Lee Santos and juniors David Balderas and Jacob Molina.
“We’re slowly trying to figure it out, if there are any new guys who are going to bust that [starting] lineup,” Webster said. “But we do have a lot of experience back. I’m hoping that that does pay dividends this year; that they do start seeing it and it clicks and our starters are solid.
“It will definitely be tough this year,” Webster later said. “Even though there are still some really good teams, it seems more balanced. We’ll see. There’s hope that we can contribute and compete against every team. And whether or not that comes out as a win…really, we can be anywhere from top to bottom if we’re not focused on every game. If we’re not sharp, we could lose to everyone.”
VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS
23-10 overall last season, 4-4 in the Olympic League, third place, lost to Maranatha 67-55 in the Division IV-A semifinals, lost to Crespi 68-48 in the Division IV second round state playoffs
Head coach: Bryan Branderhorst (10th season, 141-116)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 67-75
Last time missed the playoffs: 2011
STARTERS LOST: Kyle Westra
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Ronald Massey (7.7 ppg.), SR Jordan Mitchell (6.3 ppg.), SR Vaj Rice (12.3 ppg.), JR Johnny Johnson (7.7 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Stedmon Bryant (9.7 ppg., 21 games), SR Robert Downs (5.3 ppg.), SR Jordan Lam, JR Jalen Hines, JR Aaron Purnell
Nothing says experience like the team head coach Bryan Branderhorst will coach this season. The Crusaders are stacked in all areas and if they fell one game short of advancing to the divisional finals last season, it’s quite possible they could go one step farther. Branderhorst said it’s hard to compare the 2008 Division IV-A championship team to last season’s team. He says athleticism and talent does not equal success all the time and it’s hard to project 27 wins, which was accomplished in that 2007-2008 season. But, the current team is deeper and most talented team Branderhorst has ever had.
“I think we just try to take one more step,” Branderhorst said. “Those are the things that I think motivated our entire team in the offseason. I try not to worry about product as much as process right now at this time of the year. There are so many factors that go into whether or not you advance deep in the CIF or state tournament. Of course we have those sorts of goals in mind.”
Even though seniors Ronald Massey, Jordan Mitchell and Vaj Rice and junior Johnny Johnson were consistent starters last season, look for seniors Stedmon Bryant and/or Robert Downs to be starters this season. Johnson and Massy were second team all-Olympic League members last season Branderhorst says Mitchell has been, in a lot of ways, the backbone of the team for the past three years and is an incredible leader who is selfless and maybe doesn’t fill up the box score but is a coach’s dream in terms of just doing all the little stuff and making other players look good. Junior Aaron Purnell is in the mix to be a starter and is ‘incredibly versatile’ who can play the wing, go inside against smaller guys, one of the best perimeter defenders
“I think you have to start with our first team, all-CIF guys of last year, both Stedman and Vaj,” Branderhorst said when talking about his team. “Stedmon certainly was not healthy all year last year. He got hurt just before Thanksgiving and he limped his way back into competition a little bit after Christmas. He was never quite right. I think his injuries of last year caused him to be a smarter player; to not rely on quickness and athleticism, but more on his imagination, his creativity and his mind and his skills. Vaj is incredible with his amount of versatility with his ability to step out and shoot the three-point shot, to push the break and lead that, to bang around the rim and get easy buckets and to take care of the glass.”
Senior Robert Downs and junior Jalen Hines played significant minutes and finished games last season while senior Jordan Lam is a gritty defender. As for the newcomers to varsity, Branderhorst says sophomore Jacob Green will play significant minutes and sophomore Trevor Laparl, who transferred from Lakewood High and won’t play until January, will also battle for minutes.
The schedule that Branderhorst has in front of him is by far the most difficult he has ever had. In addition to hosting its own tournament, V.C. will compete in the North Orange County Tournament and the Orange Holiday Classic. The Crusaders will also face a tough Paramount High team from the San Gabriel Valley League before getting into a highly contested Olympic League.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we won our league,” Branderhorst said. “I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Village [Christian] won our league or if Maranatha won our league. It’s hard to say. There are so many unknowns. These teams have guys I haven’t seen before. They bring guys in from the four corners of the world; from Australia and the Sudan and wherever they can find them. There’s not going to be one easy league win on our schedule.”
10-15 overall last season, 5-7 in the Academy League, fourth place, lost to Trinity Classical Academy 52-38 in the Division IV-A first round playoffs
Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (ninth season, 97-104)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 64-61
Last time missed the playoffs: 2014
STARTERS LOST: David Lu, Tim Han (6.2 points per game), Antony Thomas (7.3 ppg.)
STARTERS RETURNING: SR Michael Hamakawa (4.6 ppg.), SO Heaven Flores (7.3 ppg.)
OTHERS RETURNING: SR Luigi Gonzales, SR K.J. Hardrict (4.9 ppg.), JR Ben Barnett, JR Peter Kang
When reflecting back on last season, head coach Ruben Guerrero thought his team made some costly errors that could have resulted in victories instead of losses, especially early in the season. Looking back, he thought the Wildcats should have been 12-13 or even 13-12. Still, the Wildcats advanced to the postseason for the sixth time in Guerrero’s time at Whitney.
“I think last year overall was more of a, ‘let’s see where we’re at’ season,” Guerrero said. “We underachieved, I think. We could have done a little bit better. Maybe not leaps and bounds but we could have done a little bit better. But I think overall it was actually a pretty good season.”
Whitney returns a pair of starters in senior Michael Hamakawa and sophomore Heaven Flores, the latter turning out to be a rare oddity. Flores scored in all but one regular season game and reached double figures five times. Look for Flores to be the anchor in Whitney’s offense.
“The addition of Heaven was a pleasant surprise,” Guerrero said. “We don’t get too many athletes like him here at Whitney. He actually proved himself early in the season and actually took a starting position from a senior and maintained it, which is rare here.”
Senior Luigi Gonzales returns after sitting out last season due to medical reasons but the other three returning players are average and will need to step up their game to complement Flores and Hamakawa. Guerrero said that senior K.J. Hardrict took the initiative during the offseason to do whatever he could to get better, including being a member of the track and field team as well as playing for a club team.
The top rookies to the varsity squad will be sophomores Adi Jahic, who was actually a late call-up to varsity last season and scored four points at Crean Lutheran High on Feb. 7 and Daniel Sou, whom Guerrero says is an excellent shooter.
The Wildcats will once again face an uphill battle in the Academy League and should compete for a playoff spot, even if it’s not one of the top three spots. It will be tough to reach Crean Lutheran and St. Margaret’s High, who were co-league champs and combined to go 40-10 in the regular season.
“We have a good group,” Guerrero said. “We’re a small group, so we’re just looking to push the ball and get a lot of shots off, similar to what the Golden State Warriors are doing or what the Showtime [Los Angeles] Lakers did. We’re just trying to get the score up and see if the other team can keep up with us.”
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