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CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW – Area to be well-represented with pair of 20-win ranked teams

February 7, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Of the area’s eight boys basketball teams, six have advanced to the CIF-Southern Section divisional playoffs with half of them being ranked, two coming off regular seasons of at least 20 victories. Here’s a look at the Feb. 8 first round matchups with second round games slated for Friday, quarterfinals for Tuesday and semifinals for Feb. 17.

Division 2A

Bishop Amat High (16-12) @ #3 La Mirada High (20-8)-Last season, La Mirada hosted the Division 2A championship game where it lost to San Juan Hills High. This season, the Matadores have a great opportunity to go deep again, but just like last season, head coach Randy Oronoz knows the division is stacked.

“The division is so well-balanced that we knew no matter where we ended up, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “Anyone can beat anyone in this division, I feel like. Just getting Bishop Amat as the first draw, it’s going to be a challenge for us just because when you’re in Division 2A, most of these teams are winning teams. I’m happy with our draw right now, but definitely a bracket that has a bunch of teams that have the potential to win the whole thing.”

La Mirada was in a great shape to win the Gateway League outright up until the final week of the season when it lost to Dominguez High 45-44, bounced back to knock off Mayfair High 61-42 before falling to Downey High 48-47 on the final day of the regular season. That left the Matadores and Downey sharing the league crown.

Of the eight losses, the last three have been by one point, another one earlier in the season was a one-point defeat and one has been by three points. The other three losses have been by no more than 10 points. At one point in the season, the Matadores were on the CIF-SS Open Division watch list and more recently, they were ranked second in the division.

“Rancho Christian was flirting probably more with the number one spot,” said Oronoz. “They were the number one team all year in our division. The have the pedigree and have some big time wins. The two close losses in league…I don’t know if that hurt us. My thing is everything balances out. Last year, we lost eight close games before we hit league and then we won a lot of close games from league to playoffs.”

La Mirada’s heart and soul has been sophomore Julien Gomez, averaging 26 points a game with a career-high 44 points coming against St. Anthony High in the fourth game of the season and nine other games of at least 30 points. Seniors Sean Cervantes and Athan Sierra complement him well but the secret weapon, especially defensively, is sophomore Morgan Smith, according to Oronoz.

“Sean has done a great job stepping up for us,” said Oronoz. “Our shooters have to get going; they kind of struggled in league, Athan and [junior] Isiah Valenzuela. But my ace in the hole that no one really talks about is our other sophomore, M.J. Smith. He’s been our best stop ball defender, he’s [had] game-winning blocks and he’s actually turning the corner right now. I think he had 10 rebounds in a half against Mayfair. So, he’s like our Swiss army knife.”

Bishop Amat finished in third place in the Camino Real League with Cathedral High and has played a common opponent with La Mirada, that being St. Paul High, which beat Bishop Amat and La Mirada by a combined 11 points. For La Mirada to get back to the title game, Oronoz states it has to be a team effort.

“Julien is not going to do it on his own,” said Oronoz. “If we’re making shots, we’re going to win a lot of games. Offensively, with the way Sean distributes the ball, and the shooting we have, when we’re making shots, it makes it easier on our defense because defensively, this is my best defensive team I’ve had.”

The winner of this game faces the winner of the Arcadia High-#14 Shalhevet High contest.

#15 Valley Christian High (17-10) @ Dana Hills High (18-8)-A tough non-league slate and even a tougher Olympic League schedule was enough for V.C. to be one of the top 16 teams in the division. The Defenders and Heritage Christian High were tied for third place in the league, two games behind both Maranatha High and Village Christian High. All four of those teams had winning records and won at least 15 games.

Valley Christian is led by juniors Jacob Bayla and Myles Harvey, both of whom combined to score at least 20 points 14 times. 

Dana Hills won the four-team Sea View League but went 6-3 while the other three teams tied for second place with a 4-5 mark. Collin Haugh leads the Dolphins with a scoring average just under 24 points a game while two others have averaged over a dozen points. Neither team has played a common opponent. The winner of this game will face the victor of the #2 Pacifica Christian High (Orange County)-Portola High game. 

Division 3AA

#16 Newbury Park High (14-14) @ #13 Artesia High (21-7)-For the second straight season, Artesia went undefeated in the 605 League and are scorching hot entering the playoffs. The Pioneers are riding a 15-game winning streak and have matched last season’s total in the loss column. In contrast, the Panthers enter the contest on an 11-game losing streak and went winless in the Marmonte League, which did not have any of its six members finish the regular season under .500. The only common opponent the two teams had was Downey High, which defeated Artesia 42-35 and Newbury Park 61-29.

“Once I watch film, I know we’re going to have a tough task on hand,” said Artesia head coach Jeff Myles. “We didn’t get any easy games; I know that for sure.”

Of the seven losses the Pioneers had, six were by 10 points or less, including a one-point overtime setback to Canyon Ridge High out of Twin Falls, Idaho on Dec. 21. That was the last time Artesia has tasted defeat. That was also the last game played without four transfer players. Half of them, senior Caleb Brown-Stanton and junior Joshua Martinez have been in the starting lineup the last 14 games making the Pioneers even more dangerous than they were when the season began. In fact, Myles believes his team is better than the record shows.

“Before our transfer kids came in, all the games that we lost, we were actually winning those games by at least six points or more,” he added. “The only game that we lost wire to wire was the Woodbridge game, which was the [second] game of the season, and the Indio game, in which we had some issues off the court. I think we are a little bit better than 21-7 and your record is what it is and we just have to play the team that we get and hopefully our guys will be ready to compete on Wednesday.”

Juniors Aaron Banks (16.3 points per game) and Zion Staples (13.1 ppg,) are at the top of the leaderboard in that department, but Myles warns not to sleep on senior Steven Anderson, Jr., who averaged just under 10 points a game. 

The winner of this contest will take on the survivor of the #4 Buena High-Pasadena Poly High game in the second round.

“3AA Division is a monster,” said Myles. “We have St. Pius, who has one of the top-ranked kids in America. You have Orangewood Academy, which is pretty good and you have La Serna, who is having a really good year. A lot of people are already talking about that they could be a sleeper and win the whole thing. Our division is tough and we’re going to take it one game at a time. Newbury Park is tough and if we’re fortunate to get past Newbury Park, Buena is also tough.”

Gahr High (14-13) @ #10 Tustin High (19-9)-In a battle of third team representatives from their respective leagues, it’s the Gladiators out of the Mid-Cities League making the trek to Orange County. Gahr had an up and down season playing a tough schedule with a team loaded with no seniors, eight juniors two sophomores and two freshmen. Gahr began the season with three straight and at one point was 2-8 and its last two league losses were by four points to Warren High and 10 points to league champion Lynwood High.

The Tillers, just like Gahr in the Mid-Cities League, went 6-4 in the Empire League including a five-point loss to Cypress High and a seven-point loss to Crean Lutheran High. There were no common opponents between Gahr and Tustin and the winner will face the winner of the #7 South Pasadena High-Camarillo High game in the second round.

Division 3A

Cerritos High (13-15) @ Ocean View High (16-12)-It may have taken a little longer than head coach Jonathan Watanabe would have preferred, but his Dons turned a 1-10 start into a second place finish in the 605 League and his 20th trip to the playoffs in 21 seasons as head coach, or co-head coach for Cerritos. But this one will be tough against a team with six seniors, one of whom is Peyton Guerrero, who leads the Seahawks with just a smidge over 20 points a game. Ocean View finished in second place in the Golden West League, three games behind Segerstrom High.

“They’ve got a guy; I think Guerrero is good,” said Watanabe. “They have a big; Tyler Pham, who is going to give us problems inside. They have a good supporting cast with a lot of experience. But we’re ready for the challenge. We knew coming in, with the way [the CIF-SS] does the divisions, that you’re going to face a quality opponent. Regardless of the pairings, our goal is to win the whole thing. Regardless of if we’re playing the number one team or in between, we have to win five games in order to win the whole thing. We’re just trying to win one game so we can play another one.”

Cerritos counters with only four returning players, one of whom is three-year varsity veteran Dominic DelaCruz. He is one of three seniors, but the Dons are built around five juniors and five freshmen for the future. Because of that, only DelaCruz and junior Tobeanna Ozoagu are the only players to have scored at least 20 points in a game.

Besides last season’s shorted league season in which only five games counted towards the league record, this is the eighth straight season Cerritos has won at least eight league contests. Neither team has played a common opponent and the winner of this tilt will face the winner of the #6 Newport Harbor High-Laguna Hills High game in the second round.

“We’re just trying to beat Ocean View,” said Watanabe. “Everything else will take care of itself. The coaches will plan for [the second round]. But we need to focus in. One of the keys to playoff basketball is you can’t overlook your opponent. If you do, you get sent home early.”

Division 5AA

#7 Whitney High (18-8) @ Savanna High (12-13)-The best story coming from is the area is the job done by head coach Joseph Webber and his Whitney Wildcats. For the first time since 2015, Whitney is in the playoffs and for the first time since the 2010-2011, the Wildcats have won 18 games. The irony to this matchup is the teams were supposed to play on Dec. 16 at Savanna. However, due to a head coaching change and a miscommunication on Savanna’s part, the game was never played.

“I am happy to have my team in the playoffs and wherever [the CIF-SS] wanted to send us, we kind of had to be prepared for,” said Webber. “Savanna has [Dontey and Paul Henderson], who are really good. Of course, we are doing our due diligence right now and we’ll be doing it over the next couple of days. We’re really looking forward to our first playoff game in a long time.”

The Henderson brothers lead the Rebels, the second place team out of the Orange League, with a 16.5 and 13.4 points per game average. But, the sophomore-ladened Wildcats got a lot of game-time experience this season and with the help of veteran seniors David Song, Justin Wahyudi and Ethan Wong, have played like this isn’t their first trip to the playoffs. Nine of the 14 players had at least one game of scoring in double figures and the ‘Cats managed to be ranked seventh in the division.

Any of the top 10 players on the team, including junior Sakeef Sekender and Joseph Whitaker and sophomores Christian Carreon, Morgan Marks and Peter Poitras could have huge games as far as Whitney is alive in the playoffs.

“When I was brought back to Whitney last year, I just made a simple feeling of it’s my mission to get Whitney back in the playoffs and back to where I felt that they can be,” said Webber. “Mission accomplished, and now it’s just one game at a time and whatever happens, we’re going to leave it out on the floor 100 percent.”

Both teams played Oxford Academy with Whitney splitting the two league games with the Patriots while the Rebels lost by one point. The two also played Katella High with Whitney winning by three points while Savanna lost by three points. And, both teams faced Loara High with Whitney winning the season opener while the Rebels lost to the Saxons by 18 points. The winner of this game will face either Bloomington High or Rim of the World High in the second round.