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2019-2020 BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Familiar faces move into new coaching roles for three area teams

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The 2019-2020 boys basketball season will feature a pair of 605 League teams, Artesia High and Whitney High, with new head coaches, while a third takes over the Valley Christian High program. Two of those coaches, though, are not new to their respective schools. Cerritos High tries to make it two straight league titles with an experienced team while Gahr High is eager to crack the 20-win plateau with another strong, competitive schedule.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

18-11 overall last season, 8-2 in the 605 League, second place, lost to Sunny Hills High 55-53 (OT) in the Division 3A first round playoffs

Co-head coaches: Jeff Myles (first season) and Ray Walker (eighth season, 97-96)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 71-66

Last time missed the playoffs: 1981

STARTERS LOST: Jarren Bugay (12.1 points per game last season in 18 games), Leroy Gladden 6.6 ppg in 25 games), Heder Gladden, Princeton Hoang (11.3 ppg. In 20 games), Joshua Jennings (6.0 ppg. In 21 games)

STARTERS RETURNING: None

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Jeremiah Charles (4.8 ppg.), SR Aaron Cleofro, SR Miguel Javier, SO Tyler Miller (11.4 ppg. In nine games)
TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Lelan Monteclaro, JR Matthew Borroto, JR Jonathan Nelson (transfer from Long Beach Jordan High), JR Devin Yoakum, JR Drayven Young, SO Troy Linao

Former Artesia junior varsity head coach Jeff Myles joins the varsity staff as a co-head coach alongside Ray Walker, who recently recorded his 100thvictory with the Pioneers. The two met when they were coaching at Bellflower High in 2006. When Walker left Bellflower to come to Artesia, Myles replaced him as the Buccaneers head coach.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Myles said. “It’s a historic school with a historic name. Of course, it comes with the nerves and pressure. And so, I’m wondering if I’m doing things the right way. You just have to believe in your system and believe in your motto and kind of teach the same principles. I’ve felt that I have put in the work, I’ve put in the time and I’ve put in the effort.”

Myles will inherit a young team with an all new starting lineup and only four returning players, headlined by sophomore Tyler Miller, who shined in limited action after being called up from the junior varsity team. However, it won’t seem too new for Myles, who coached a lot of this season’s team last season. Myles says his transition from junior varsity to varsity was easy because the players know his system.

“We have a little bit of experience with [Miller] and [senior] Jeremiah Charles, who has been on the varsity program for three years,” Myles said. “So, it’s a little bit of experience, but not much. But I think our youth will be okay because we’re all aggressive, we’re all hungry and we all want to do well.”

As it relates to Miller, Myles said it’s just not the scoring that the sophomore brings to the team. Myles added that he’s a hard worker who will practice for five hours if you allow him. Myles also says the four returning players will help the younger players understand what it’s like to play on a Friday night for a varsity game.

Juniors Devin Yoakim and Drayven Young, along with Miller, are coming from the football team and played for Myles last season while sophomore Troy Linao is the younger brother of Alex Linao, who played for the Pioneers from the 2014-2015 to 2016-2017 seasons.

Even though the Pioneers are young, they still figure to challenge Cerritos for the 605 League title. But Myles isn’t ready to make any bold predictions.

“With this team, I just want us to compete,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I just want us to play hard every game. I tell the guys every time that if they play hard every game, then the results are going to show. So, I don’t want to say we’re going to do X, Y and Z. My biggest thing is just compete, compete, compete.”

CERRITOS DONS

17-12 overall last season, 9-1 in the 605 League, first place, lost to Schurr High 68-51 in the Division 3AA second round playoffs

Co-head coaches: Jonathan Watanabe (19thseason overall, 271-236) and Kevin Enomoto (fifth season, 68-47)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 85-59

Last time missed the playoffs: 2007

STARTERS LOST: Aditya Suresh (5.7 points per game last season), SR Gavin Carothers (8.8. ppg. In 22 games)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Ethan Reyes (6.3 ppg), Jagger Uy (8.9 ppg.), JR Alex Archer (10.4 ppg. In 19 games)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Luke Castrence, SR Eric Clark, SR Christian Jones, SR Austin Rivera, JR Obinna Ene, JR Ryan Scammahorn

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SO Danny Patton

It took close to two decades, but co-head coach Jonathan Watanabe finally won a league championship, and in the first season of the 605 League. The fact that Cerritos won it in a new league as opposed to the Suburban League where the program had been overshadowed by the likes of Artesia early on, then Mayfair High and finally La Mirada High recently, Watanabe says regardless of the league, last season’s team was looking to leave a legacy that they were able to accomplish different goals.

“It was not an easy league championship last year with Artesia probably being the top ranked team, Pioneer being really good [and] Oxford [Academy] also being really good last year,” Watanabe said. “So, we really had to work for it. I felt it was not just a switch in leagues. It was a well-earned and deserved league championship that we put in not just from last year’s group, but all the other years prior to that that had helped to build the program.”

Watanabe credits seeing a certain group of players every two or three years all the way through as to why he continues to coach and why he is closing in on 20 seasons as Cerritos’ head coach.

“There’s been a few years where we thought, ‘hey, maybe this will be it’,” he said. “Then another group will come in and we say, ‘we’ll stay on for a little bit longer’. But it is for the love of the games; to teach these kids the sport. It also has a lot to do with the school, the students and their parents because we’ve had a lot of good support from the families. So, that helps a lot.”

Now, the Dons are again stacked to win a second straight league crown, especially with returning senior starters Ethan Reyes and Jagger Uy and junior Alex Archer, all of whom combined to score over 25 points a game. Watanabe says all three are going to lead the team and that Reyes and Uy are “our motors”. Archer has a lot of potential and is currently being recruited by the University of California, Irvine. The other projected starters as of now will be senior Eric Clark, who sat out last season after transferring from Los Alamitos High, and junior Obinna Ene. Watanabe adds that Clark is a strong addition and will strengthen the Dons on the offensive end.

As far as the new players to varsity, the one who will make the biggest impact will be sophomore Danny Patton. While Watanabe continues to say a lot of the team’s strength will be the returning players, he believes people will be asking about who Patton is. Last season, Patton was the most valuable player of the freshmen team.

Watanabe has two major goals this season-to go undefeated in the 605 League, and to win the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA championship. It won’t be easy to accomplish those feats as Cerritos will be tested like it has never been tested before, scheduling a road game at Los Alamitos for its season opener, back to back North Orange County and St. John Bosco tournaments, Downey High at the Staples Center and the city rivalry game against Gahr. In addition, the Dons will have breaks during its league season with games at showcase tournaments-the Ron Massey Tip-Off Classic and the Mike’s Long Shot Challenge.

“This is our 19thseason and this is by far, the toughest preseason schedule we’ve ever had,” Watanabe said. “Some of it has to do with balancing out league with our preseason schedule. Traditionally, we were good playing in the North Orange County Tournament. We would see all the best teams in Orange County and that was enough to test us to see where we’re at. But we decided to double up this year. We feel like we need to compete against the best in order to really figure out where we stand.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

16-13 overall last season, 5-5 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for second place, lost to La Mirada High 67-63 (OT) in the Division 2A first round playoffs

Head coach: Ricky Roper (10thseason, 160-102)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 88-57

Last time missed the playoffs: 2018

STARTERS LOST: Isaiah Knowles (10.2 points per game last season), Jordan Simpson (3.7 ppg.), Justin Stephens (14.1 ppg.), Ryan Young (9.4 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: JR Jalen Pitre (10.4 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Ethan Woon, JR Moses Dollar, JR Mark Onyejekwe

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Kenneth Hunt, JR Khye Matthews, JR Gemel Williams

Most coaches with a program as prestigious as what Gahr has would sum up a 16-13 season as a disappointment, considering the Gladiators had four seniors in its starting lineup and went to the playoffs. But head coach Ricky Roper would disagree with that summation. Yes, the Gladiators finished three games over .500 and finished tied for second place in the very tough San Gabriel Valley League. But Gahr lost three league games by a combined six points and lost four other games by less than five points each time.

“Why would I have been disappointed,” Roper questioned. “We competed really hard every night. Our league was really tough. We had a couple of one and two-point losses. So, I was really proud of those guys. They competed really hard. We finished in second place [and] lost in overtime in the playoffs.”

Roper says that’s a testament to the schedule he puts together every season. Gahr played La Mirada High twice last season and faced league foes Downey High and Warren High in tournament games, not to mention city rival Cerritos. Gahr also co-hosted a tournament with St. John Bosco High where it played Palisades High and Windward High and competed in the prestigious Torrey Pines Tournament.

This season, Gahr returns three players who played significant time on varsity last season and another one who was up and down from the junior varsity team to varsity. Standing at 6’ 7”, junior Jalen Pitre is the one everyone will be keeping an eye one and figures to boost his scoring from last season.

“It’s his third year on varsity, so he’s been around awhile,” Roper said of Pitre. “We have a talented, young group; we only have two seniors. But we’re pretty talented. And a lot of these guys who are juniors, like Mark Onyejekwe and Khye Matthews, practiced with varsity last year. So sometimes, our starters on j.v. will practice with varsity. They’ve kind of got the flow of varsity basketball.”

The only expectations Roper has for this season is simply for his team to compete in league and compete every night and give itself a chance to win every night. A successful season for Roper would be for the Gladiators to finish in the top three in league and get into the playoffs. Moving from Division 2A to Division 3AA gives the blue and gold a better chance of advancing far. 

Gahr again will have a stacked non-league schedule, opening in the Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary Tournament, where it fell to Los Altos High in the championship game, followed by the El Monte Tournament, its own co-hosted tournament with St. John Bosco and the Rancho Mirage Tournament before the end of December. The Gladiators will also visit Westchester High

“I think we’re really good, but our league is really good,” Roper said. “Lynwood and Dominguez are really talented. Warren has the [league] player of the year back. Downey is always very, very good. A really good team in our league is going to finish in fifth place.”

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

4-24 overall last season, 2-8 in the 605 League, fifth place

Head coach: Ruben Guerrero (fourth season, 11-66)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 13-114

Last time made the playoffs: 2014

STARTERS LOST: Joseph Angulo (6.1 points per game last season), Marcus Ek (7.8 ppg.), Chris Lujan (4.0 ppg.), Gerardo Vargas (4.2 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Chris Saucedo (10.8 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Justin Del Los Santos, JR Chanmarafine Som, SO Nathanael Jacobo

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Pedro Miranda, SR Davion Roachford, SO Hector Herrera, SO Richard Ramos

The futility numbers for John Glenn High keep growing as the Eagles failed to win at least 10 regular season games for the 12thstraight season and have not won at least three league games in any season since the 2000-2001. The move to the 605 League was supposed to be a bit easier last season, but instead, the Eagles once again struggled. Head coach Ruben Guerrero describes last season as a “culture change” even though the team was loaded with seniors.

“They were a great group of guys, they bought in and carried our values to every game and practice,” Guerrero said. “We didn’t win much but I appreciate last year’s team. They were exactly what our program needed because we still see their affects this year.”

Glenn does not return much, and only senior Chris Saucedo is the lone starter coming back. Guerrero says he is expecting Saucedo to compete on every possession and lead by example for the rest of the program to follow. 

Glenn will begin the season with just eight players and Guerrero says all of them have put in the work during the offseason and is excited to see them all perform. As far as improving greatly from last season and getting back to the playoffs, which would be the third time in the 2000s, time will tell.

“Every year we expect to make a run at a league title,” Guerrero said. “Every year, our goal is to make CIF. Our guys are committed to being the team they need to be to accomplish their goals.”

NORWALK LANCERS

11-17 overall, 1-8 in the Suburban League, fourth place

Head coach: Brent Campanelli (fourth season, 32-48)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 55-79

Last time made the playoffs: 2018

STARTERS LOST: Andrew Beeson (4.6 points per game last season, 19 non-league games), Mark Gonzalez (3.7 ppg.,19 non-league games)

STARTERS RETURNING:SR Christopher Herrera (18.9 ppg., 19 non-league games), SR Pablo Juarez (7.1 ppg., 19 non-league games), JR Jayden Williams (7.5 ppg., 19 non-league games)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Alejandro Aguirre, SR Armando Castellannos, SR Daniel Recinos, JR Miguel Fernandez

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: SR Kevin Garrett, SR Julian Price

Last season, Norwalk High had a decent non-league and was barely above .500 heading into the Suburban League. With little margin to work with as now, only the top two teams in league get automatic berths to the playoffs, head coach Brent Campanelli wasn’t that confident because the team had been dealing with some internal stuff. It led to the Lancers winning one league game and finishing in last place. 

“I don’t know if it was tough, but it was different,” Campanelli said of the new look to the Suburban League. “Playing a team three times, I don’t care who they are…that’s a difficult thing to do within a 30-day span. I’m just thankful we don’t have to do it again.”

Barring the same problems as last season, and if the team can stay healthy, Norwalk looks to be better and get back to the playoffs with the return of three solid starters in seniors Christopher Herrera and Pablo Juarez and junior Jayden Williams, all of whom combined to average 33.5 points a game prior to the league season. Campanelli says he is going to rely on those three a lot along with senior Armando Castellanos. 

“He is legit, and he has worked on his game a lot,” Campanelli said about Herrera. “He and I have had conversations about changing the way he plays in January because it’s not a secret. And we knew he wasn’t going to be a secret in January last year. He’s worked on his body, he’s worked on his mind, he’s worked on coming off the ball and relying on teammates. I think his court vision has improved tremendously, I think his leadership has improved tremendously and so hopefully we don’t have to rely on 19 points a game this year.”

Campanelli said that Juarez is going to handle the basketball and be the ‘quarterback’. In all, eight players return who all played quality minutes. The starting five for the Lancers this season started at least one game last season. Junior Miguel Fernandez is going to step into a much larger role, according to Campanelli. However, he added that Williams will have to pick up the scoring. Plus, the Lancers will benefit from senior Kevin Garrett, a newcomer to Norwalk.

As far as the schedule goes, Campanelli said he had to get a bit creative and sought out some Division 4A opponents. Also, the Lancers will play on their home court as few as six times, half of them coming in league action, which will be the final three games of the regular season. In fact, Norwalk will play 14 games on the road from Dec. 18 to Jan. 28. Also, the four Suburban League teams will now play six games instead of nine, allowing everyone to schedule more non-league opponents.

“If you do get into the playoffs, at some point you’re going to have to play on the road,” Campanelli said. “And in our league, you’re going to have to go win on the road if you want to get into the top two and maybe even win the thing. I figured the more road games we have under our belt, the more experience travelling, the better prepared we are for the end of January and hopefully February.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN DEFENDERS

16-13 overall last season, 3-5 in the Olympic League, tied for third place, lost to Warren High 61-46 in the Division 3 AA playoffs

Head coach: Josh Zumkehr (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 86-63

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

STARTERS LOST: Christian Bozanic (6.6 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Daniel Bradford (2.6 ppg.), SR Malvin Payero (15.3 ppg. in 19 games), JR Denzel Williams (11.7 ppg.), SO Nathan Medina (12.5 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Joseph Klein, SR Lucas Lam, JR Luca Caldarella

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Brett Stahl, SO Melian Martinez, SO Micah Sybesma, T.J. Waters

There is a changing of the guard at Valley Christian, but not a significant one as Josh Zumkehr moves one seat over to become the new head coach of the Defenders, replacing Josh Beaty. Despite a relatively young team last season, V.C. managed to clinch an automatic berth in the playoffs and played Warren tough before losing going away.

“It’s exciting,” Zumkehr said about taking over as the new head coach. “The program is in a much different state than it was last year when we came over from Crean Lutheran. When I got here last year as an assistant, it was pretty much a glorified j.v. team. Well, a year later, we’re developing some guys from the j.v. program, [plus] transfers coming in and incoming freshmen and all of a sudden, we have ourselves a pretty good basketball team. It’s been fun, it’s been exciting moving over.”

The Defenders will benefit greatly with the return of four starters from last season with senior Malvin Payero leading the way. Don’t be surprised to see Payero get close to 20 points a game. But at the same time, don’t be surprised to see Payero average less because of the talent V.C. has this season. Complementing him will be junior Denzel Williams and sophomore Nathan Medina, who are locks to be starters.   And it doesn’t stop there as three other players return 

“The amount of guys we have coming back and just guys…for example, Luca Caldarella, a very good football player, all of a sudden, he’s a grown man,” Zumkehr said. “Some of the plays he wasn’t making last year, now he’s making. Micah Sybesma, a freshman on j.v. last year, grows four more inches and all of a sudden is 6’6”. And then Brett Stahl, a guy on j.v. last year, has developed into a good role player for us. We return guys, then all of a sudden, you have these new faces that show up.”

Zumkehr continues to give praise of the other new players, including sophomore Melian Martinez, who is a transfer from Massachusetts, and freshman T.J. Waters. He added that V.C. went from two decent players to having seven to nine depending on who’s at practice.

While Caldarella has the inside track to become a starter, Zumkehr said the cool thing about this team is the ability to be flexible and said there will be opportunities for Caldarella to be the big guy and other opportunities for him to be on the wing. He went as far as saying they’ll probably go through the season without a set starting five. 

More times than not, V.C. has struggled in the Olympic League, mainly because most of the other teams are constantly bringing in transfer students who end up getting NCAA Division 1 scholarships. For the Defenders to win three league games and finish in third place further illustrates the parity in the league.

“It’s a brutal league and it starts with the transportation, having to go [to the San Fernando Valley] and Whittier [Christian], being the closest and there’s no freeway access,” Zumkehr said. “So, it kind of sets those tones. But the talent level…there have been multiple NBA players in the league the past five years with Tyler Dorsey and Bennie Boatwright.”

WHITNEY WILDCATS

4-23 overall last season, 0-10 in the 605 League, sixth place

Head coach: Lance Convento (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 41-87

Last time made the playoffs: 2015

STARTERS LOST: Sanal Asokan (2.9 points per game last season), Joshua Chung (8.7 ppg. in 18 games), Ethan Xu (8.6 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Zaafir Haider (4.5 ppg.), SR Victor Ufondu (5.6 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Jeffrey Fernandez, JR Kenneth Kim

TOP VARSITY NEWCOMERS: JR Adetokunbo Adeleye, FR Ethan Wong

Former Cerritos standout Lance Convento takes over as Whitney’s third head coach in the past four seasons. Convento previously coached at his alma mater, one year with the girls junior varsity team and the other with the boys freshmen team. After taking some time off, Convento came to Whitney where he coached the boys freshmen team. This will be his first head coaching job at the varsity level.

“I’m definitely excited but kind of on the edge at the same time because this will be my first time running the whole program,” he said. “But I’m definitely up for the challenge and definitely excited to run my own program, run my own plays, run my own defense and put in my own philosophy.”

Like the previous coaches who have passed through the doors of Whitney, Convento is trying to change the culture of this academic school, turn the program around and commit more. The Wildcats have not had a winning record since the 2011-2012 season when they went 15-9.

Convento, who has played basketball all his life and even in the Philippines, says he can bring some confidence to the team.

“I definitely think that if your coaches have confidence, then it rubs off on your players and they absorb that same confidence you have,” Convento said. “I’m trying to bring a type of swag, as you would say, towards this winning program.”

Last season, injuries plagued the team early on and it couldn’t recover. Only two starters return-seniors Zaafir Haider and Victor Ufondu. The lone seniors on this season’s team barely combined to score just over 10 points a game last season. Convento was quick to say they will play a huge role this season and looks to them to lead the team by example. Juniors Jeffrey Fernandez, who missed a good chunk of last season, and Kenneth Kim are the only other returning players. Convento says Fernandez is 100 percent healthy and has the most endurance, having just finished the cross-country season.

“My expectations are fur us to go out there and compete,” Convento said. “Last year, we didn’t win one single game [in league]. I would definitely like to do better than our record last year.”

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