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605 LEAGUE BOYS BASKETBALL – Cerritos puts game away in second quarter as Injuries continue to mount for Wildcats

January 18, 2022

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The Whitney High boys basketball team, enjoying one of the better seasons in the history of the program, took a big hit on Jan. 10 when senior Ethan Wong injured his left ankle in the first quarter against Oxford Academy. With Wong sidelined against visiting Cerritos High last Friday night, the homecoming king was relegated to being a spectator as the Dons outscored the Wildcats by 20 points and ran away with a 63-45 win.

Whitney High senior Ethan Wong, a fixture in the boys basketball program the past several seasons, was crowned Homecoming king last Friday in between the two varsity basketball games against Cerritos High. Senior Layla Lacorte (right) of the girls team was one of the princesses and had played minutes before the homecoming festivities. Wong injured his ankle on Jan. 10 against Oxford Academy and did play against Cerritos, a 63-45 loss to the Dons.

Wong, who was slated to see a doctor this past Tuesday, is the latest starter to be sidelined, joining sophomore Morgan Marks, who has missed the last 10 games.  Junior Sakeef Sekender, who had missed six straight games with an injury, returned to the lineup against Oxford Academy. But without Marks and Wong, Whitney’s game is completely different. Instead, the Wildcats (15-5 overall, 2-2 in league) had to go elsewhere for their scoring.

Whitney was leading 14-11 a minute into the second quarter before the wheels came off as the Dons (8-14, 3-1) went on a 23-5 run to put the game away by halftime. Whitney would trail by double digits for the final 17:20 of the game.

“We’re shorthanded right now,” said Whitney head coach Joseph Webber. “David [Song], our senior guard, is a total leader. He rounded up the troops, got them up as much as he could and yeah, they made a little stand and played as strong as they could. I’m just really proud of the kids.

‘The sophomores are all stepping up,” he continued. “But it’s also becoming a point where we’re bringing up a couple of freshmen for this week’s games.

“Our hats off to Whitney, because they’re playing and they’re young,” said Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “So, they’re going to be there for a while. But they’re missing two of their best guys; they’re missing Ethan and Morgan. Those are two All-League players. I think Ethan may be the league M.V.P. So, they played without him and they’re still battling.”

Whitney got out to a strong start in the opening quarter, building a 12-6 lead with seven points coming from Sekender. Two free throws from sophomore Peter Poitras left Whitney clinging to a 14-11 lead. After that, it was all Cerritos, which outscored the Wildcats 27-7 in the second quarter and got 14 points in the stanza from four bench players-senior Chase Rambaran and sophomores Benson Cho, Nathan Ju and Jaden Ribac. 

Cerritos entered the fourth quarter up 50-33 but the ‘Cats tried to make one last run and began the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run. With 6:36 left in the game, and the Dons having turned the ball over four times in the stanza, Watanabe called a timeout. Cerritos responded and got its lead back up to 21 points following an 11-1 run over the next three minutes.

Part of Cerritos’ success was getting five Whitney players into foul trouble. Song, Sekender and sophomore Christian Carreon all had three fouls before halftime with junior Justin Wahyudi and Poitras each collecting their third foul before the end of the third quarter. Song would foul out with 5:40 left in the game after Cho had a steal and finished off a three-point play.

“If you have anything to say, don’t say it,” chuckled Webber. “And I don’t have anything to say. I asked the officials to look out for a couple of things, and they decided not to. It is what it is. Cerritos is a Division 3 team for a reason and they have a lot of talent over there. [Junior] Osi [Agaranna] and [junior] Tobe [Ozoagu] are difference makers. I can see why they play the schedule they play, which is way above ours.”

“It definitely took away from their aggressive edge,” said Watanabe. “In the beginning, they definitely had the advantage in aggressiveness, and when the fouls started happening, they had to back off and it gave our guys some freedom. Our guys need to play tougher. We didn’t do a very good job to start the game. I think we were kind of taking back of how hard they were playing. Our guys can match that, but we need to do a better job of starting that way the next time we play them.”

Of the 13 players who suited up for the Dons, all but two scored, led by Ozoagu (11 points, six rebounds, two steals), junior Shay Pema (10 points, three rebounds) and Cho (10 points). The Wildcats were paced by Poitras, who had a career-high 15 points and Carreon, who scored a dozen points for the second straight game.

“They are part of my super sophomores,” said Webber. “Peter has been injured half the season, or he would have already been getting more minutes. We’re just very cautious with him. But man, he is quick, he is cagey, and he can hit the three. I’m really proud that he’s able to show what he can do every now and then. And Christian has been doing it all season. Christian comes off the bench, but he may have played, or at least been tied with the top player for most minutes this season.”

“We have every single player on our scouting report, because they have a lot of guys who can play,” said Watanabe. “All of our guys were familiar with every single player down the line. We weren’t really surprised by anybody, but we knew we were in for a battle tonight.

“They have a lot of quick guards, and they use them well,” he later said of Carreon and Poitras. “They’ve done a great job [with their personnel]. They’re tough and when they get those guys back, they’re going to be tougher. I’m not looking forward to the game at our place.”

The win vaulted the young Cerritos team to second place in league, a game behind Artesia High while the surging Wildcats fell to this place, and still in a great position to advance to the CIF-Southern Section playoffs for the first time since 2015.

“They’ve had some good years,” said Watanabe. “This is up there with them. We’re in a very similar position. We have a lot of young guys, and they have the edge in experience. I think that was the biggest key that a lot of these guys that are sophomores and juniors played varsity last year. We only have three returning varsity players.”

The first half of league concluded this past Wednesday with Cerritos going to Oxford Academy and Whitney visiting Pioneer High, which is tied for fourth place with Oxford Academy and John Glenn High. On Friday with Cerritos hosting Artesia while Whitney entertains Glenn. On Wednesday, Cerritos goes to Pioneer while Whitney is home to Artesia.

“Our goal is to get Whitney back in the playoffs,” said Webber. “We are working as hard as we can, and so are the kids; the kids share the same goal. Pioneer, in one of the rankings, is number [four] in Division 5A, and they are not to be taken lightly. There’s no way we that we want to sneak in or take a chance on being an at-large in CIF. For some reason, they haven’t been taking many in the past years, and we don’t know why. Not counting Artesia and Cerritos, if we can take care of our business and stamp our way into the playoffs, I think that’s what the entire team, parents, coaches and players would like to happen.”

Just like the girls game, which came before the boys game, the Cerritos-Whitney rivalry for the boys figures to be more competitive than it did when the league began. Of the combined 29 players on the two teams, six are seniors, nine are juniors and 13 are sophomores.

“We’re coaching our guys,” said Watanabe. “That’s what they’re doing at Whitney; they’re coaching their guys. We have no transfers on either school. We have to develop our talent, and so that’s what we do. As freshmen, we teach them how to play. As sophomores, we have to do that. As juniors, we have to do that. As seniors, we have to do that. 

“We’re developing players and that’s why our players and our teams always improve,” he continued. “We’re coaching our guys every single day, and Pioneer does it, John Glenn is doing it, Whitney is doing it [and] Oxford [Academy] is doing it. We don’t bring guys in. There’s only one school that’s brining guys in.”

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