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2023-2024 BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEW – Artesia, La Mirada expected to be chased for respective league championships

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

The 605 League was dominated by Cerritos High in its early seasons of infancy, but now, Artesia High has been the team everyone else is looking up at, and it’s expected to be the same this season. La Mirada High has had stellar seasons recently, and the Matadores are looking for another trip to the CIF-Southern Section divisional finals. Whitney High is looking for an encore performance with a new head coach while John Glenn High is seeking better things under their first-year head coach.

ARTESIA PIONEERS

22-8 overall last season, 10-0 in the 605 League, first place, lost to Buena High 66-56 in the Division 3AA second round playoffs.

Head coach: Jeffrey Myles (fifth season, 79-37)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 97-48

Last time missed the playoffs: 1981

Division 3AA

STARTERS LOST: SR Aaron Banks (16.2 points per game last season), Steven Anderson Jr. (9.7 ppg.), Caleb Brown-Stanton (7.4 ppg. in 16 games)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Zion Staples (16.2 ppg.), SR Joshua Martinez (5.1 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Tyler Robinson, JR Cayden Del Rosario, JR Jaylen Reed, JR Judd Sajise

TOP NEWCOMERS: SO Kobe Young

Could the Artesia boys basketball program be gaining some momentum like the Artesia teams of early part of the 2000s when the Pioneers won three straight league titles, back to back CIF state championships and went 144-21 in a five-year span from 2002-2007? Time will tell, but if last season’s performance, minus the second round exit in the playoffs, is any indication, then Artesia is headed for another banner campaign.

“Any loss is a hard loss,” said head coach Jeffrey Myles of the early playoff loss last season. “Every season we go into with the expectations to make a deep run in the CIF playoffs and try to win CIF. Losing in the second round was heartbreaking. But we lost to a very good Buena team on the road on a Friday nightin a hostile environment. Buena won 30 games last year and went to the state finals. So, it’s not like we lost to a bad team; they were a very good team, and we were right there with them and had our opportunity to win. But it just wasn’t our time yet.”

Artesia has had consecutive seasons of getting to at least the second round after seven straight first round exits. With the departure of senior Aaron Banks, who was the league’s most valuable player, and seven other players, Myles will look to senior Zion Staples to carry most of the load, along with a solid group ready to do more. Staples is a likely candidate grab the same accolades that Banks did last season. But look for senior Josh Martinez to improve more as the only other returning starter. They will be joined in the projected starting lineup by juniors Jaylen Reed and Judd Sajise and sophomore Kobe Young, who is one of eight new players to varsity. 

“During the offseason, we grind, we workout, we condition, we lift weights, we hit the beach for workouts, and we work on skill developments to try to help our players be the best basketball players they can be,” said Myles. “The summer is about just playing games and getting experience and playing some teams you probably won’t play in the regular season.”

Outside of Martinez and Staples, senior Tyler Robinson, junior Cayden Del Rosario, Reed and Sajise played limited minutes, prompting Myles to treat this season’s squad like a dozen new players. He said he couldn’t pinpoint one or two top newcomers because every day, someone steps up or takes a step back, adding that after the top two options, he doesn’t expect anyone to take a backseat to those players.

As for the season, which began with the Pioneers winning four of their first six games, Myles believes the recipe for success will be how quickly the new guys mesh together.

“The 605 [League] has gotten better this year and none of us expect it to be like last year,” he said. “We expect to be in a dog fight every game and hopefully by league, our guys are up to the challenge, and I believe they will be. Someone once said, ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’, and right now, we have the crown, and we know everyone in the league is coming for it. So, if we want to win the league and go back to back to back, we have to play every game like it’s a championship game and we have to implement what I’ve been preaching the last few years…ALWAYS COMPETE!!!”

CERRITOS DONS

14-16 overall last season, 8-2 in the 605 League, second place, lost to Newport Harbor High 51-47 in the Division 3A second round playoffs.

Head coach: Jonathan Watanabe (22ndseason, second stint 319-264)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 74-55

Last time missed the playoffs: 2007

Division 4AA

STARTERS LOST: Dominic Dela Cruz (7.0 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Osinachi Agaranna (4.8 ppg.), SR Tobeanna Ozoagu (8.5 ppg.), SR Shay Pema (7.1 ppg.) SR Luke Rigor

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Jaylen Barsana, JR Benson Cho, JR Nathan Ju, JR Jaden Ribac, JR Maddox Yokoyama, SO Yuuki Yamamoto

TOP NEWCOMERS: SR Evan Monteclaro, JR Nathan Dawit, JR Demetrius Washington

Longtime head coach Jonathan Watanabe has pretty much seen it all in his illustrious career. But this season will be different as he and the Cerritos nation will be playing with heavy hearts as senior Ethan Soriano passed away earlier in November. This would have been Soriano’s first season on the varsity squad and the program will be dedicating the 2023-2024 season to him.

“Ethan is the ultimate teammate, always putting the needs of the team above his own,” said Watanabe. “He is the epitome of hard work and perseverance.”

“I see myself being a leader both vocally and through example as I hope my work ethic will inspire my teammates to keep getting better,” said Soriano before the season began. “However, I will stay passionate for any role to make sure the team wins.”

Last season was a rebuilding one for the Dons, who went through their second straight losing season, the first time that has happened since 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. Watanabe attributes that to the youth and inexperience as there were three varsity returners and half a dozen more with no varsity or junior varsity experience. But it must be mentioned that Cerritos began the season losing 10 of its first 11 games before the turnaround, and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. 

Cerritos figures to be much stronger with seniors Osinachi Agaranna, Tobeanna Ozoagu, Shay Pema and Luke Rigor returning. In all, the team will field eight seniors, eight juniors, one sophomore and one freshman. Watanabe says the other five returning varsity players have gotten stronger and quicker, improved offensively and defensively and have a good understanding of the system and expectations to be successful, both on and off the court. He was speaking about juniors Jaylen Barsana, Benson Cho, Nathan Ju, Jaden Ribac and sophomore Yuuki Yamomoto.

“With all these returners, one of our biggest strengths has become our depth,” said Watanabe. “We are comfortably able to rotate 10-12 players into the game with very little drop off.”

Senior Evan Monteclaro, a transfer from Buena Park High, and juniors Nathan Dawit, a transfer from Servite High and Demetrius Washington, the MVP of the junior varsity team last season are listed as the top varsity newcomers who will make a big impact.

Watanabe sees Artesia as the team to beat again once league begins, but also knows the circuit is tougher. He adds that Whitney will still be good, especially if junior Morgan Marks can stay healthy. Among other tidbits he had about the league, he believes it’s going to be ‘a fun and exciting league season’.

The Dons will once again be put to the test in the first month and a half to the season, playing the likes of Cypress High, Gahr High, La Habra High, La Serna High, Los Alamitos High, Orangewood Academy and Servite High. They will also make their usual trek to San Diego to take part in the Mt. Carmel Tournament. The game against La Serna, which was this past Monday, was played at Crypto.com Arena, the 11th straight season the Dons have played a non-league game in that facility.

“A lot of coaches create a schedule allowing them to win 20+ games so they can have a “successful” season,” said Watanabe. “At Cerritos, we are not concerned about the number of games we win in preseason. We are focused on getting better and winning championships. We schedule teams at or above our level of play to help our players and our team improve.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

14-14 overall last season, 6-4 in the Mid-Cities League, third place, lost to Tustin High 29-18 in the Division 3AA first round playoffs.

Head coach: Marcus Girley (second season, 14-14)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 63-59

Last time missed the playoffs: 2019

Division 3A

STARTERS LOST: SR Dayvon Gates, SR Trey Reyes, SR Evan Spurlin-Renfroe

STARTERS RETURNING: JR Uchenna Okoli, JR Joshua Pearson

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Noah Taylor, SO Roman Acosta, SO Austin Woon

TOP NEWCOMERS: FR John Cabral, FR Julian Cabral

No other information was given.

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

11-17 overall last season, 3-7 in the 605 League, tied for fourth place

Head coach: Chris Palisin (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 32-87

Last time made the playoffs: 2022

Division 5AA

STARTERS LOST: Armando Arreola (12.4 points per game in 18 games), Frankie Sanchez (2.8 ppg.), Michael Saucedo (13.0 ppg.), SR Seyharmony Somchan (6.6. ppg. in 21 games)

STARTERS RETURNING: SO Sean DeLeon (8.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Justin Rodriguez, SR Nathan Serrano 

TOP NEWCOMERS:

Known for being the doormat of the old Suburban League with nine straight last place finishes, then a fifth place finish in the 605 League followed by consecutive 0-10 marks, Glenn has gone 25-30, the best two-season record the program has seen in over two and a half decades. That still wasn’t enough to make a coaching change as Chris Palisin becomes Glenn’s third head coach in the past four seasons and 11th since the 1998-1999 season. 

Palisin is entering his 26th season coaching boys basketball, 13 as the varsity level with previous stops at Hawthorne High, La Quinta High, Oxford Academy and Paramount High. Palisin led Oxford Academy to its first playoff victory in school history during the 2021-2022 season, then won 16 games last season at Paramount. While at Oxford Academy, he got to see the Eagles a total of six times and is familiar with the program that seems to be up and coming.

“They were tough-minded and had a great run the last two years, but it’s a total rebuild right now with underclassmen,” Palisin said. “We are very young, and accountability and fundamentals will be stressed as we grow as a team and as a program.”

Player defections throughout last season forced the numbers to dwindle and when the season was over, the Eagles were left with three returning players for the 2023-2024 campaign. Since taking over, Palisin says the practices have been teaching moments, both good and bad, and the team was able to have a shortened fall season, which is positive for a rebuild. Since the Eagles are in rebuilding mode, they are stressing team daily with no individual more important than the team concept. With that said, he could not list a projected starting lineup or any individual players.

“My staff and I are building relationships and trust, and we expect positive effort and attitude daily,” he said. “Sportsmanship and team energy is stressed.”

Palisin admitted the 605 League is strong and experienced this year and added that Glenn’s non-league schedule will be important to gain experience and confidence to build the young team’s confidence and passion for league competition.

“We understand we will be a huge underdog this season with a total rebuild,” said Palisin. “We will embrace and strive daily to help our student-athletes fulfill their maximum potential in life, the classroom and in high school basketball.”

LA MIRADA MATADORES

25-10 overall last season, 6-2 in the Gateway League, tied for first place, lost to Rancho Christian High 63-55 in the Division 2A championship game, lost to Oxnard High 61-58 in the quarterfinals of the Southern California Division II Regional playoffs.

Head coach: Randy Oronoz (sixth season, second stint, 97-59

Team’s record previous five seasons: 88-57

Division 1A

STARTERS LOST: Sean Cervantes (8.5 points per game last season), Anegi Castillo, Athan Sierra (7.4 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Michael Torres (4.1), JR Julien Gomez (24.9 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Christopher Cuevas, SR Isaiah Valenzuela, JR Jarrett Cole, JR Jaydin Cox, JR Chris Perez, JR Morgan Smith (5.4 ppg.), SO Tristan Partida

TOP NEWCOMERS: FR Gene Roebuck

After reaching the CIF-SS divisional finals the past two seasons, La Mirada can only go one way, which is up. The Matadores have moved to Division 1A for this season with an opportunity to go to the Open Division once the playoffs begin. Head coach Randy Oronoz says the past two seasons have been special and the Matadores have played in 14 playoff games during that span which has given them a ton of experience in big games.

“The offseason for us is really simple,” said Oronoz. “The team gets a ton of shots up and skill work in the gym and really tries to dedicate themselves to their individual development.”

Everyone in the Southern California high school basketball world knows about junior Julien Gomez, who was the HMG-Community News Player of the Year and Gateway League MVP last season. People are running out of words to describe him and his talent, but Oronoz says he is working on being a better facilitator. He says the 6’3” Gomez is working on making plays for others and running the offense at the point guard position. But there’s more to La Mirada than Gomez.

Junior Morgan ‘MJ’ Smith, who stands at 6’4” and freshman sensation Gene Roebuck, at 6’5” are two other projected starters with the other two still up for grabs depending on who plays better that particular week in practice, according to Oronoz. La Mirada returns nine players from last season and will have four newcomers with Roebuck the future of the program.

“Gene Roebuck is an extremely talented player that has potential to be one of the best players in the state as a freshman,” said Oronoz. “He’s 6’5” and a great shot maker as well as a great decision maker.”

The Matadores won the 6th Annual “Rumble for Rosecrans Ave.” Tournament, then defeated Villa Park High and Sonora High and opened the season playing seven games in the first 12 days of the season (not including this past Sunday), winning all of them. La Mirada will later participate in the prestigious Damien Classic plus other single games ahead of what figures to be another tough Gateway League season.

“We enjoy the progress we’ve made and moving up to Division 1 is a testament to the hard work we put in,” said Oronoz. “During the preseason, we play a ton of D1 teams, so it’s nothing we are afraid of and actually we embrace the challenge. In that division, anyone can beat you come playoff time. we are just hoping we are healthy and playing our best basketball come February.”

NORWALK LANCERS

11-17 overall last season, 4-6 in the Mid-Cities League, fourth place

Head coach: Brent Campanelli (eighth season, 72-102)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 51-71

Last time made the playoffs: 2020

Division 5AA

STARTERS LOST: Saul Barcelo Jesus Gomez (3.8 points per game last season), Vincent Hernandez (9.2 ppg.), Aytin Reyes (5.2 ppg.)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Jakhari Ramey (11.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING: JR Andruw Castellanos, JR Aaron Reyes

TOP NEWCOMERS: SR Seyharmony Somchan (Transfer from Glenn)

No other information was given.

VALLEY CHRISTIAN DEFENDERS

17-12 overall last season, 4-4 in the Olympic League, tied for third place, lost to Dana Hills High 70-67 in the Division 2A first round playoffs.

Head coach: Dijon Thompson (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 84-53

Last time missed the playoffs: 2011

Division 2AA

STARTERS LOST: Nick Bozanic, T.J. Waters (9.0 points per game last season)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Jacob Bayla (16.8 ppg.), SR Ryan Caracoza (3.3 ppg.), SR Myles Harvey (15.0 ppg.)

OTHERS RETURNING:SR Chris Allen, SR James Morales, SR Raymond Scott, SR Gavin Stahl (7.2 ppg.), JR Bryce Shepherd, SO Josiah James

TOP NEWCOMERS: JR Christian Manley, SO Nathan Maurer, SO Ryan Vasquez, SO Chris Wondimu

No other information was given.

WHITNEY WILDCATS

22-10 overall last season, 5-5 in the 605 League, third place, lost to Lynwood High 93-46 in the 5AA semifinals, lost to Ramona High 77-59 in the quarterfinals of the Southern California Division V Regional playoffs.

Head coach: Nasir Akmal (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 48-46

Last time missed the playoffs: 2022

Division 4AA

STARTERS LOST: David Song (5.6 points per game last season), Justin Wahyudi (3.1 ppg.), Ethan Wong (9.4 ppg. in 26 games)

STARTERS RETURNING: SR Sakeef Sekender (6.9 ppg. in 22 games), JR Morgan Marks

OTHERS RETURNING: SR Joseph Whitaker, JR Christian Carreon (6.9 ppg.), JR Alex Cheng, JR Kailan Hizon, JR Rafael Mercado, JR Peter Poitras

TOP NEWCOMERS: JR Jeffrey Nishida, SO Ismael Portillo, SO Shayan Saravanakumar, FR Jezreel Dela Cruz, FR Jack Diancin

When it comes to boys basketball in the City of Cerritos, the talk has been on either Gahr to the north or the successful Cerritos program that’s a stone’s throw from city hall. But the other school, this one on the east side of the city, is making waves very fast. Whitney had a season for the ages when it played in the Southern California Regionals after a semifinal loss to Lynwood High in the divisional playoffs. The Wildcats had never won more than 18 games in the past 26 seasons and now, they are hoping to build off that remarkable season with a new head coach. 

Former Whitney assistant Nasir Akmal, who was hired as the program’s 10th head coach since 2000 at the end of October, replaces Joseph Webber whom he had sat next to on the bench the past two seasons. Akmal had stepped down last May and had not been around the program until he was hired.

Akmal had also been an assistant varsity coach and the freshman head coach at Mayfair High from 2003-2005 and in between the Mayfair and Whitney stints, was a player and captain and a player/coach for his medical school university’s team in the United Arab Emirates. He has also coached different AAU travel ball teams.

“Last season was an amazing experience and a season I will never forget,” said Akmal. “That whole team was special and I’m grateful that they got to etch their names in Whitney history. As for an encore, we lost three starters, and their impact cannot be understated. But we still have a ton of varsity returners with big playoff experience.”

With that said, Akmal was quick to point out that there were two weeks in between his hire date and the start of the season and there were many obstacles that needed to be overcome. He added that everyone involved is doing their best to expedite the change in the system and most of the players are up to the challenge.

Look for juniors Christian Carreon and Morgan Marks to improve from last season and try to fill in the shoes left behind by David Song and Ethan Wong. Akmal feels like they have not reached their full potential yet. Marks missed a good chunk of last season with an injury while Carreon was a consistent bench player. His projected starting lineup would be Carreon, Marks, seniors Sakeef Sekender and Joseph Whitaker and junior Alex Cheng.

Whitney will be built around their junior class of seven players and Akmal says freshmen Jezreel Dela Cruz and Jack Diancin have been solid and are quick learners and gamers. 

“We’re also looking for our sophomore class to take a big leap this season,” said Akmal. “I’ll be moving them around a lot between varsity and junior varsity just to get them more experience and playing time together. We’ll need their height and skill sets when we get into league.”

Speaking of league, Akmal says the main goal is to make the playoffs and go on another run just like last season. He admits Artesia and Cerritos are always going to be tough teams to beat and Pioneer High and Oxford Academy tend to get up for games against Whitney. 

“But, right now, our biggest competition is ourselves,” he said. “It is going to take everything in our collective power to get this team firing on all cylinders in such a short period of time. When we start playing at our real level, I truly believe this team can make some serious noise.”