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Longtime Fixture of Cerritos Boys Basketball Retires After Twenty Seasons as Head Coach

Cerritos Coach Johnathan Watanabe

BY LOREN KOPFF • June 2, 2021

For 20 seasons, Jonathan Watanabe has been the face of the Cerritos High boys basketball varsity team, first being a co-head coach with another legend, Ian Desborough, then by himself, and finally with Kevin Enomoto by his side the previous six seasons.

The time has come for Watanabe to step down as head coach, something that once surfaced as water cooler talk following the 2015-2016 season but was never definite until now. Watanabe compiled a 305-248 record in 20 seasons and leaves as the school’s all-time winningest boys basketball head coach. Cerritos recently captured its third straight 605 League title and finished the abbreviated season at 11-4, the fewest games played since the year before Watanabe moved up to the varsity team when the Dons went 7-19.

Watanabe said the pandemic changed a lot in his decision to retire now, especially not being able to be with the team on a full-time basis this past season. He also recently had a second child and his time at home has doubled. Enomoto has also decided to step down as co-head coach for different reasons.

“I think Kevin not coming back, too, is a big factor,” Watanabe said. “If he was able to coach another year, I do think that definitely changes things where we could have worked things out.”

Watanabe said he first thought about retiring following the 2015-2016 season, which was the senior season of Evan Leonard, one of the best athletes to have played under Watanabe. The Dons went 18-12 that season, had compiled the most victories since the 2008-2009 campaign and advanced to the quarterfinals for the second of three times under Watanabe. And Cerritos did that while finishing in third place in the much competitive Suburban League.

“At that point it was a little bit of a different feeling,” Watanabe said. “It was more of ‘I was just kind of burned out at the time’. I just felt like I was doing so much, and I was running tired of…a feeling like I had to do everything on my own. And then that final year, we decided that Kevin was going to come up and we were going to coach for that final year. That changed everything and when we coached together, it made it more fun again. We were able to split some of the duties and responsibilities. Everything that happened that year changed and so we were able to extend [the coaching] for five more years.”

 

Jonathan Watanabe (left) and Kevin Enomoto coached their last Cerritos High game together on May 28, a 66-52 loss to Orange Lutheran High in the CIF-Southern Section Division 2AA first round playoffs. While Watanabe is retiring after 20 seasons as the school’s head coach, he and Enomoto were co-head coaches the past six seasons, going 102-59 with three straight 605 League championships.

 

Watanabe remembers talking to Enomoto on the bus ride home from Hart High after the 64-49 quarterfinal loss about the possibilities of the two of them returning as co-head coaches and taking it year by year. It was the second straight postseason loss to Hart by nearly identical scores; the first one being 68-47. With Enomoto, who went to La Serna High and was the Cerritos junior varsity coach when Watanabe took over the varsity job, and the 42-year old, 5’ 1” Watanabe as co-head coaches, the Dons went 102-59 and finished above fourth place every time.

“Everything we’ve done has been together,” Watanabe said. “Kevin and I have done this all together. Any success that we’ve had at the varsity level was not just attributed to him being [the co-head coach] the past six years. It’s been the last 20 years. Even though he was coaching j.v., we would bounce ideas off each other all the time. What we would run at the varsity level, he would run at the j.v. level because that way, it was consistent.”

Watanabe leaves behind a lifetime full of memories that he can share with his two children, Jordan (three years old) and Alyssa (one-year old), when they are grown up, ranging from the consistency of his yearly schedules, which included the going to the Mt. Carmel Tournament in late December and the Staples Center tussles with Downey High to the matchups he would have against Artesia High, La Mirada High and Mayfair High, the powerhouses of the Suburban League, to the connections he had with his players, especially Leonard, Joseph Vitug and Aaron Wright, to name a few.

“It’s been an honor,” he said. “It’s been so much fun. Being an alumnus from Cerritos High School, you’re just already the built-in pride for the school. Then loving basketball and wanting our program to do well…I wanted to win there. That was one of my main goals. I didn’t want to just to win basketball games.

“I played for coach Desborough, I knew [former Cerritos athletic director and golf coach Dennis] McReynolds and I even played for [former head coach Jim] Chapel,” he continued. “When I came in as a freshman, he was the coach at the time. There’s a lot of history there.”

You could say the Cerritos boys program is the Pittsburgh Steelers of high school basketball when it comes to stability in its head coaches. Cerritos opened as a high school in 1971 and it has known only four head coaches-Desborough, Chapel, who coached for a brief stint during Desborough’s time, Watanabe and finally Enomoto. Watanabe graduated from Cerritos in 1996 but never played on the varsity team. He was on the freshman team, then cut before playing on the junior varsity team as a junior. He didn’t play as a senior. He would be the junior varsity coach for the 1996-1997 season, then spend the next two seasons coaching the freshmen team before returning to the j.v. team for two more seasons before being promoted to work with Desborough on the varsity team for the 2001-2002 campaign.

“I remember coach Desborough helping me to be able to get the job initially at Cerritos, and he stayed a year,” Watanabe said. “His wife actually moved to Idaho the year before and he stayed and moved back in with his parents and taught an extra year. He was supposed to retire the year before but…wanted to make sure I had time to get my credential and that I would be able to fill his role as a teacher and as the coach. I owe a lot to him; to coach Desborough for believing in me and staying that extra year just to kind of ensure that I was going to be able to get that job.”

During Watanabe’s 20 seasons as either head coach, or co-head coach, the Dons missed the playoffs only once. That came in the 2006-2007 when Cerritos went 10-18 overall and were tied for fourth place in the Suburban League with Bellflower High. Cerritos would lose the tiebreaker because Bellflower defeated the Dons in the second round of league play. Cerritos also didn’t meet the 12-win criteria the CIF-Southern Section had put in place for teams to apply for an at-large bid. But the one thing that eluded Watanabe was a chance to play for a CIF-SS divisional championship.

“The one missing piece there is a CIF championship,” Watanabe said. “When I took over the varsity job, the first thing I wanted was a league championship because I looked at the banner [inside the Cerritos gymnasium] and the last time was 1997, the year after I graduated, and I looked at that banner every single time we were in the gym. I want to have a number up there. I feel like I’m coaching all these years and it was wearing off on me after year 10 and year 15 and no number had been put up there. It’s almost like we’re not here.”

Cerritos never made it to the semifinals and were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs 11 times, including its 66-52 loss to fourth-ranked Orange Lutheran High on May 28 in the Division 2AA playoffs. All three league championships the program ever won have come as members of the 605 League in which the Dons have gone 29-1. Watanabe has won at least 20 games twice, both times coming within the past three non-pandemic seasons, and he has gone through seven losing seasons.

While Watanabe can’t say for sure which of his 20 teams was the best, he said the 2019-2020 was amazing because of the pieces that were put in place and the division that the Dons were in. He will not, though, tell who his favorite player to coach was because there were just so many of them. But when it comes to opposing players, Watanabe said he really liked playing against, and conversating with Derrick Williams of La Mirada and Casper Ware of Gahr High.

“Those were two guys that were on the opposing team that we would do everything to try to beat them and they were great players,” Watanabe said. “But at the end of the game, I have total respect for them. I would coach Casper or Derrick in a heartbeat just because of their character and who they were as people.”

Watanabe will remain with the program as the freshman coach and will do the paperwork and behind-the-scenes activities for new head coach Lance Convento, another Cerritos alum. Convento, who graduated in 2003, has been the head coach at Whitney High the past two seasons. Convento, who scored 139 points as a junior but led the Dons with 367 points (14.1 points per game) as a senior, was officially named the new Cerritos varsity head coach shortly after the Dons were knocked out of the playoffs.

“If anyone who is taking over the program, I think it’s the perfect fit of somebody who understands the history of the program, what’s expected of him and what’s going to be expected of the players,” Watanabe said of Convento. “I’m fortunate to be coaching the freshman team because I thought that would be an ideal step where I can help develop these guys for the varsity level, having the varsity experience as a coach and knowing what these guys will need to do. But I get to coach from my end of it. I love basketball and I love coaching it.”

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