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2016-2017 BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEW Cerritos, Gahr, Valley Christian eager to rebound from last season’s playoff setbacks

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

The Cerritos High and Valley Christian High boys basketball teams had high hopes of making it to their respective California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section divisional finals last season with stacked squads that included each having five senior starters. However, both teams fell in the quarterfinals. Gahr High was also hoping to get far in the postseason as it played another tough schedule. John Glenn High, Norwalk High and Whitney High will all welcome in new coaches while Artesia High and Norwalk hope to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth in a tough Suburban League.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

10-17 overall last season, 3-9 in the Suburban League, 6th place, lost to Workman 50-48 in the Division IV-AA first round playoffs

Head coach: Ray Walker (fifth season, 48-62)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 56-80

Last time missed the playoffs: 1981

STARTERS LOST: Martin Villeses (6.0 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Rian Hughing (6.9 ppg.), SR Alex Linao (78 points), SR Devion Smith (8.4 ppg.), SO Heder Gladden (10.6 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Kody Pitts

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Albert Pascual, JR Angel Garcia, JR Roman Hernandez, JR David Lizarraga, JR Reggie Reamer

At times, it looked as if Artesia might be good enough to finish among the top of the Suburban League. But at other times, it seemed as if the Pioneers were a bit overwhelmed. Still, head coach Ray Walker returns a well-experienced starting unit and hopes to move up higher in the league standings. Despite a 10-win season, the Pioneers were a play or two from moving on to the second round of the playoffs.

“I knew it was going to be a tough league season.” Walker said. “We were excited to get into the playoffs and once we got in, we had a chance. We actually hit a three [pointer] after the buzzer. That was disappointing, but we’re looking forward to this year.”

Walker added that this should be the strongest team he has had in his five seasons at Artesia. He continued by saying the team is going to be challenged on the boards, rebounding-wise because the team is small. But the Pioneers will be able to take care of the ball better and its maturity level will be the strength. While Artesia has three returning senior starters, the heart and soul of the Pioneers might come from sophomore Heder Gladden, who impressed many last season. Walker said he learned to be a good teammate and help the guys pull for each other

“We knew that he was talented and for our program [we knew] that he was going to be one of our better athletes and better basketball players,” Walker said.

However, seniors Rian Hughing and Devion Smith could each average in double figures, giving the Pioneers a triple threat on offense. Senior Kody Pitts is the only other returning player, which means there will be a lot of learning from the newcomers.

“The seniors who have been together for four years are excited, and we’re excited,” Walker said. “We knew, as freshmen, that was a good class. So now that they’re seniors, we’re ready to go.”

Walker said the returning players and senior Albert Pascual will be the top six players with junior Reggie Reamer slated to be the seventh guy in the rotation. Can this season’s Artesia team be better than last season? The Pioneers have won at least 10 games the past three seasons.

“We need to be, I expect us to be,” Walker said. “We’re going to need to be in order to be a playoff-type team. It’s harder to get in this year. But I like our chances if we have that opportunity to get to the playoffs.”

CERRITOS DONS

18-12 overall last season, 8-4 in the Suburban League, third place, lost to Hart 64-49 in the Division II-A quarterfinal playoffs

Co-Head coaches: Jonathan Watanabe (16th season overall, 221-201) and Kevin Enomoto (2nd season, 18-12)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 72-68

Last time missed the playoffs: 2007

STARTERS LOST: Trenton Abundo (4.6 points per game last season), Jaylen Jones (6.1 ppg.), Evan Leonard (22.5 ppg. in 24 games), Uchenna Nnoli (8.1 ppg.), Brandon Yoon (6.1 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: None

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Timothy En, SR Jason Fernandez, JR Nathan Amanuel, JR Jason Anigbo, JR Vincent Biscoe, JR Destin Flucas, JR Jyvonnte Moore (5.7 ppg.), JR Byron Sur

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: Dorian Harris (transfer from Gahr)

If there was ever a season for Cerritos to advance to the Division II-A finals, it would have been least year. Headlined by the great Evan Leonard, the Dons ran into a buzz saw against Hart High in the quarterfinals. Co-head coach Jonathan Watanabe was thinking if last year was going to be his final year of coaching, and said he would decide at the end of last season. The decision was made and he still wanted to coach and was still hungry to compete for a few more years.

“I just had to come back because I didn’t want that to be our last year, Watanabe said. “There is still some unfinished business.

“I thought it was a good year,” Watanabe continued. “We enjoyed taking the run. I really still wonder what would have happened if Evan didn’t get injured, because he came back and he was still a good player. But he was nowhere near the player he was before the injury. But injuries happen; you don’t have any control over them. We developed a lot of good kids and as a team. We made a good run.”

The longtime coach was referring to Leonard missing some action in late December and early January. Cerritos went 3-4 during that time. But, as in the case with a lot of teams in the past that graduated a lot of talent, the cupboard is far from bare at Cerritos for this season. Eight players return for the Dons and they all got a lot of valuable minutes. Some of them even started, especially senior Jason Fernandez, who started four games when Leonard was on the shelf. Junior Jyvonnte Moore is the most experienced scorer of the returners, but everyone will bring a different element to the team.

“We have a lot of young talent, and we call them young but they’re going to be juniors,” Watanabe said. “So I don’t know how young they are. We still have a ways to go. But there’s definitely a lot to work with.”

Junior Byron Sur is slated to be the starting point guard while junior Vincent Biscoe will probably be the starting shooting guard. Junior Destin Flucas will probably start at one of the wings with Moore as the other starter

The top newcomer is junior Dorian Harris, a transfer from Gahr who won’t be eligible until January and is expected to move into the starting lineup. Watanabe says there are a lot of things to learn and a lot of bad habits to clean up. But this could be one of the best teams he has had if the guys work and continue to learn. By the time they’re seniors, Cerritos could have as many as nine guys with three years of varsity experience.

“It’s going to be all by committee,” Watanabe said. “If we have anybody averaging 20 points a game, we’re not playing the right way. The way this team should be playing, we should have five to six guys averaging double figures; somewhere between 10-15 (points) when the ball needs to be spread around.”

After co-hosting a tournament with Gahr in the first week of the season for over 20 seasons, the Dons will be in a new tournament this season. The rest of the schedule is status quo with a return trip to Staples Center on Dec. 23 to face Downey High.

“It’s an amazing experience,” Watanabe said. “We’re just fortunate to be able to do it for this many times. We won’t take for granite the experience. But we’re looking forward to that and hopefully getting a win one of these times against Downey.”

Cerritos will once again be a force in the Suburban League and, as shown in recent seasons, is capable of knocking off La Mirada High and Mayfair High, the two powers that are expected to contend for a league title.

“If we get to where we want to by the time it turns to January, if we play the right way, we’re going to be good,” Watanabe said. “We may not have that one highlight player. But we have a lot of them.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

16-12 overall last season, 5-5 in the Suburban League, third place in the San Gabriel Valley League, lost to San Marcos 66-42 in the Division III-AA second round playoffs

Head coach: Ricky Roper (seventh season, 114-65)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 88-57

Last time missed the playoffs: 1997

STARTERS LOST: Evan Anderson (10.0 points per game last season), JR Kristopher Smith (12.3 ppg.), Justin Smith (8.7 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Marvin Bragg (18.0 ppg.), JR Jarrel King (4.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Anthony Resendez, SR Tony Crosby (4.2 ppg.), JR Justan Lucas, JR Seth Shaw, JR Jonathan Sims, JR Gary Williams

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Brandon Gibbs, SR Julio Maldonado (transfer from South Gate High), SO Dallas James, SO Justin Stephens, FR Amir Kirkwood

Despite playing top quality opponents last December, Gahr head coach Ricky Roper saw his team win 10 of its first 14 games with two of those losses coming by a combined 10 points. Then came San Gabriel Valley League action where the Gladiators went .500 including a pair of two-point losses.

“It was good year; it wasn’t a great year,” Roper said. “It was young team. We had lost a lot of guys from our CIF final team from the year before. We kind of left the door open. Lynwood won the league but in the opening game of league, we were up seven in the fourth quarter and ended up losing that game at the buzzer. So that kind of changed the complexion of league a little bit. We were kind of up and down.”

Now, the Gladiators have been bumped up to Division I-AA and are ready for the challenge. Gahr will be led by senior Marvin Bragg, who signed a letter of intent to play at American University in Washington D.C. He could be in a position to average at least 20 points a game. Junior Gary Williams, who has also been recruited by a few Division I schools, is slated to be a major force despite playing half of last season because he transferred from Artesia and had to sit out the first 30 days. Add senior Tony Crosby and junior Jarrel King, the Gladiators have a solid returning quartet of scorers.

“He represents everything that’s right about the culture of our program,” Roper said of Bragg. “He’s built himself into a Division I player. We’ll have a chance in every game because we have him.”

Senior Anthony Resendez, and juniors Seth Shaw and Jonathan Sims split time on the varsity and junior varsity teams last season. Look for senior Julio Maldonado to be the leader of the varsity newcomers. As always, expect another 15 plus-win season for Gahr, which recently won the consolation championship of the prestigious Pacific Shores Tournament.

“We’re up in Division I-AA now and we have a really, really good team this season,” Roper said. “But we’re in a division with all really good teams. We have the type of team that in a normal year we would win over 20 games. But our schedule is pretty brutal. So our record may not reflect how good we are.”

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

0-24 overall last season, 0-12 in the Suburban League, seventh place

Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 13-115

Last time made the playoffs: 2014

STARTERS LOST: Nathan Lopez (3.7 points per game last season), Uriel Trejo

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Hugo Anguiano (10.8 ppg.), SR Issac Carrillo (1.6 ppg.), SR Cruz Gomez (8.9 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Lucas Aguirre (1.5 ppg.), SR Armando Mendoza (1.6 ppg.), JR Aaron Clay, JR Chris Murray

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Sean Espineda, SR Julian Gonzalez, JR Juan Jimenez, SO Chris Lujan

For the first time in at least 19 seasons, John Glenn went through a completely winless season. The Eagles have now finished in last place in the Suburban League eight straight seasons and 10 out of the last 11, winning only seven league games in that time. Out is Alfred Sterling, who lasted one season, and in comes former Whitney head coach Ruben Guerrero. In his nine seasons at Whitney, Guerrero went 105-116 but sent the Wildcats to the playoffs six times.

“I just think the biggest challenge here is getting them to understand what the team concept is; learning to compete,” Guerrero said. “That’s a big, big major hurdle since I’ve been here in the summer and most of the fall. One of the meetings I had with the varsity team was that they really need to trust in what we’re trying to do here because none of them know how to win.”

Glenn played Whitney the past couple of seasons and Guerrero said he saw a lot of individual talent that Glenn had in those games. What drew Guerrero to Glenn was the fact that he felt he could help and that’s one of the challenges of helping a program possibly turnaround in the next few years

Seniors Hugo Anguiano and Cruz Gomez are the top scorers for a team that had problems getting to 50 points in a game last season, which happened once. The starters will have to perform well because there isn’t much talent on the bench, at least not with varsity experience.

“I just stay open-minded,” Guerrero said. “Everybody has to prove themselves to me. I don’t really look at last year’s roster. I just looked at their record and playing them last year, I just saw them for what they were.”

Guerrero says junior Chris Murray has stood out since the summer just because of his positive attitude and adds that he has been very vocal about wanting to be able to draw from the neighboring kids. Guerrero’s biggest expectation is simply improving the program. Don’t expect to see Glenn in the playoffs this season. Then again, Guerrero went 5-21 in his first season at Whitney before turning that program around.

“I still approach the season the same way, which is play to win, compete and where the chips fall, they fall,” Guerrero said. “I’m hoping to see a lot more improvement; there’s already a lot more improvement over the past two months. A lot of our downfall is stuff that we bring upon ourselves. My biggest thing is trying to teach these guys how to compete.”

NORWALK LANCERS

14-13 overall last season, 6-6 in the Suburban League, fourth place, lost to Colony 59-42 in the Division III-AA first round playoffs

Head coach: Brent Campanelli (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 55-82

Last time missed the playoffs: 2012

STARTERS LOST: Greg Deed (4.0 points per game last season), Emmanuel Lateju (4.6 ppg.), David Suarez (9.3 ppg.), Keno Valdenor (6.0 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Jordan Volpei (9.7 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR David Balderas, SR Jacob Molina, SR Brendan Schultheis

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Desmond Johnlouis (transfer from Bellflower High), SR Bryan Venegas, JR Cris Cecenas, JR Richard Lozano, JR Justin Schultheis

After being Norwalk’s head coach for 14 seasons, winning 144 games and making seven playoff appearances, Jim Webster retired at the end of last season. Replacing him is Brent Campanelli, who was at Sunny Hills High for the 14 years as a coach. He was an assistant varsity coach and head junior varsity coach for eight years and also coached girls varsity last season. This is his first time as a head coach for any boys varsity team. Campanelli was hired at the end of July and didn’t meet any of the players until the first day of school except for senior Jordan Volpei and junior Cris Cecenas five days before school started.

“Oh, it’s definitely special,” Campanelli said. “Although maybe not a perennial powerhouse, there’s definitely history at this school and in this community. And I’m well aware of that. I want to continue to build on that. To speak to coach Webster, he has been probably the biggest support system I’ve had here since I’ve been here.

“To me it’s been actually a really pretty smooth transition,” Campanelli later said. “Everybody has just been welcoming, kind of an open arms sort of thing, allowing me to find my rhythm. I can’t say enough about the guys because from their standpoint, it has to be difficult to have this new voice and new face.”

According to Campanelli, the Lancers will play fast and physical. Volpei is the lone returning starter and although he averaged less than double digits last season, he did score close to 11 points a game as a sophomore. The Lancers return just three other players in seniors David Balderas, Jacob Molina and Brendan Schultheis. Expect all four returning players to play valuable minutes. They’ll all have to perform at a very high level because there will be some uncertainties with the new varsity players.

“Jordan has been great,” Campanelli said. “He is of the ones I really got a good sense of what the students and athletes were like because when I came in the summer and just started getting acclimated to my classroom, he sought me out. He came right up to my room, he saw where I was, he shook my hand and asked if I had some time to talk.”

Norwalk has finished in fourth place in league the past three seasons and has finished in every spot except for first place under Webster’s tenure. It will be tough for the Lancers to crack the top three this season and finishing with at least a .500 overall mark will be critical for Norwalk this season.

“I’ve understood that of the last few years, the perennial powers are La Mirada and Mayfair,” Campanelli said. “I’ve definitely kept my eyes there. Being that we watch the CIF divisions, I’ve kind of kept my eyes there a little bit.

“This is definitely playoff material,” he continued. “I expect us to compete every night. It’s funny because when I got here, people would tell me, ‘oh, these teams are in your league’ or ‘you have to play this team’. And my response was always, ‘well, they have to play us’.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS

15-15 overall last season, 2-6 in the Olympic League, fourth place, lost to Viewpoint 61-59 (OT) in the Division IV-A quarterfinals

Head coach: Bryan Branderhorst (11th season, 156-124)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 72-74

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Stedmon Bryant (11.2 points per game last season), Robert Downs (4.1 ppg.), Ronald Massey (9.6 ppg.), Jordan Mitchell (7.6 ppg.), Vaj Rice (12.8 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: None

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Jalen Hines, SR Johnny Johnson (3.6 ppg.), SR Ryan Porter, SR Aaron Purnell, JR Jacob Green, JR Trevor Laparl

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Julio Martinez (transfer from Loyola High), FR Gorden Boykins

The writing was on the wall for Valley Christian to finish high in the Olympic League standings and advance to the Division IV-A title game with five senior starters. But a season filled with injuries early on hurt the Crusaders in December and it carried over once league action began.

“Last year was a season of almost,” said V.C. head coach Bryan Branderhorst. “Everything was almost. I’m not going to look back with a lot of regrets or what could have been. We faced a lot of adversity last year. We had a lot of injuries from the very beginning. We played in the North Orange County Tournament with [junior varsity] guys on our squad. That’s a very good tournament. We lost a ton of close games. I think we had five games [decided by] either buzzer-beaters or overtime or double overtime that we lost. So we kind of got on the wrong end of those. Yeah, we were fourth place in league but we almost beat every team in our league.”

All five starters may have graduated but the Crusaders are still loaded with a solid returning group led by seniors Jalen Hines, Johnny Johnson and Aaron Purnell, who have the most scoring of the returners. But senior Ryan Porter and juniors Jacob Green and Trevor Laparl are expected to play a lot of minutes.

“We still have a lot of guys who played a lot of varsity minutes,” Branderhorst said. “Johnny Johnson, this will be his fourth year of varsity play and will certainly be a key player for us. He’s been a leader for us his whole career here. Aaron Purnell, the same thing. Aaron is a three-year varsity guy and started a lot of games for us last year and even a couple the year before that. So he’ll play a significant role. Jalen Hines will be the third of that group who has been around the block a time or two. This will be his third year on varsity.”

Branderhorst said that Green has improved the most and throughout the summer was very important to the team and on both ends of the ball is a very reliable player. The top varsity newcomer is freshman Gorden Boykins, a left-handed small forward who can score in many different ways and is definitely varsity-ready. Branderhorst says Boykins will look to play considerable minutes. Whereas last season, it was all about the senior starters, for the most part, this season’s squad will take on a different identity.

“What we want our identity to be is to be fast, to be aggressive, to play in transition, to push the ball a little bit more,” Branderhorst said. “We’re more of a perimeter oriented team. The last few years we’ve been banging the ball. People who’ve played Valley Christian the last couple of years are like, ‘man, they’re physical. Let’s get out the bags of ice’. I think this year you’re going to see a little but more pace, a little more fluid, up and down a little quicker.”

V.C.’s schedule is loaded again with its own tournament next week and the orange Holiday Classic at the end of the month, as well as single games against Norwalk High, Ontario Christian High and Villa Park High, to name a few, plus its league slate.

“We’re not going to run away from anybody,” Branderhorst said. “Were used to playing good schools and we’ll be ready to do that. Everyone matters starting with our very first game against Long Beach Cabrillo. Every single game matters. We can’t have a slow start and kind of feel it out.”

WHITNEY WILDCATS

8-12 overall last season, 3-9 in the Academy League, fifth place

Head coach: Wade Morris (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 54-66

Last time made the playoffs: 2015

STARTERS LOST: Luigi Gonzales (6.7 points per game last season), Michael Hamakawa (5.2 ppg.), K.J. Hardrict (10.7 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Ben Barnett (4.9 ppg.), JR Heaven Flores (9.7 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Peter Kang, SR Ethan Rigonan, JR Waseem Asiedu, JR Jonan Baladjay, JR Adi Jahic, JR Daniel Sou, JR Kaleem Syed

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Howard Lin, SO Joshua Chung, SO Kamron Ortiz, SO Timothy Reyes

Wade Morris replaces Ruben Guerrero as the new head coach at Whitney and hopes to get the Wildcats back to the playoffs. Morris was hired in July and has previously coached at Blair High, Duarte High, Maranatha High, Ribet Academy.

“The new challenge is it’s an academic school,” Morris said. “These kids are not concerned about going to college on [an athletic] scholarship. They’re going to go to [college] on an academic scholarship. So it’s getting them to think athletically first, then to think about basketball second.”

Morris will bring a different style of basketball to Whitney as he plans to run a 10 second offense in which he hopes his players will get three passes off and get a score within 10 seconds. This will be a small team with no player over 6’ 2”.

Senior Ben Barnett and junior Heaven Flores will anchor a team that graduated the majority of its scoring. Flores has continued to impress many throughout his high school career and will be counted on to be the leading scorer.

“Heaven is an offensive juggernaut,” Morris said. “He can do better than that if you open the court up. Last year, what they did was they went a lot of half court. So he had to score a lot of his points against a set defense. But in the summer when he played with me, he scored a whole lot more than that.

“Both of them will do really well,” he continued. “Ben is an all-around type of guy. He can score, he can play defense, he’s calm, but he work’s extra hard.”

But the other returning players will serve as major role players, especially senior Peter Kang, whom Morris is “the bedrock” and “the spiritual guy for our team”. Morris also said that senior Ethan Rigonan is a good defensive player who will go for the 50-50 balls and is probably the hardest worker on the team. Of the four new players to the team, sophomore Kamron

Ortiz is an excellent athlete and a really good defensive player while sophomore Timothy Reyes will be the point guard coming off the bench behind junior Adi Jahic, according to Morris.

In his short time at Whitney, Morris believes is team can be better than the 8-12 mark that last season’s team had. The Wildcats played a lot of teams close in the first half last season before fading in the fourth quarter. Because of that, Morris believes in lifting weights, conditioning, running up and down the court, man to man defense and being aggressive. How that relates to the Academy League finish Whitney will have is yet to be seen.

“I’ve heard that St. Margaret’s is really good, Sage Hill is really good and Crean [Lutheran] is really good,” Morris said. “I was told that if you come in fourth, you’ve done great. I can’t accept that. My brain [tells me we’ll finish in] first place. It might be a goal that is unrealistic.

“I know it’s hard to get past the first round [in the playoffs],” Morris added. “I’m trying to get past the first round and…my goal is to win the league. My goal every year is to win the league. My goal every year is to win more games than I lose. So it’s getting these boys in the mindset of running and playing good, hard defense.”

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