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MID-CITIES LEAGUE BOYS BASKETBALL – Early Norwalk turnovers pave way for fast start by Gahr, which stays in upper half of league

January 21, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

The second round of Mid-Cities League play began last Friday, and it was somewhat of a crossroads tilt between Gahr High and Norwalk High. The former, which was the visiting team in its own gymnasium was hoping to stay within a game of the top spot in the circuit while the Lancers, who have played every game this season on the road, needed a win to keep their dire playoff chances alive.

Gahr came out blazing in all phases, scoring its first two baskets from offensive rebounds while the defense forced half a dozen turnovers early. In the end, the Gladiators cruised to a 57-39 victory, improving to 14-8 overall, 4-2 in the circuit and mired in a three-way battle for second place with Bellflower High and Warren High,

“Second round, and now there’s more film out [there],” said Gahr head coach Marcus Girley. “The scouting reports are elevated, so now coaches are going to key in on mismatches. They’re going to execute their sets; they’re going to tweak things. 

“I thought, overall, our kids did good,” he continued. “We’ve basically been telling them this is a new season. This is kind of that prequel, or beginning stages to the playoffs, especially with the position we’re in. For us, it’s pretty much must win every situation.”

Senior Miles Merchant and junior Joshua Pearson each scored within the first 51 seconds of the game off rebounds, prompting Norwalk head coach Brent Campanelli to call a timeout. By then, Gahr had already taken six shots from the field because the Lancers were turning the ball over. 

“We couldn’t get any rebounds,” said Campanelli. “They’re a really good defensive team; they put a lot of pressure on us. And it makes ball handling difficult; difficult to get into our offensive sets. But I really thought it was a couple of offensive rebounds early. I called a timeout [less than] 60 seconds into the ball game and we had already given up five offensive rebounds. A 10-0 [deficit] is hard to overcome.”

Exactly three minutes into the game was when Norwalk junior Andruw Castellanos ended the scoring drought. Then with 2:54 remaining in the stanza, senior Tyler Tedtaotao scored five straight points and senior Gabriel Esquivel added a basket as Norwalk crawled back to trail 12-9. However, beginning at the 1:09 mark in the quarter and lasting until there were 2:05 left in the half, the Gladiators put the game away with a 19-2 run.

All five Gahr starters scored in the first quarter and by halftime, Pearson had eight points, three rebounds and two assists. Coming off the bench and playing in his eighth game since becoming eligible was junior Ethan Carey, who added six points and a pair of rebounds. 

“This week of preparation, I was telling them that we had to be [ready] when we hit the court,” said Girley. “There’s no more, ‘my bad’. There’s no more, ‘oh, I’ll get it next time’. There might not be a next time. I think the kids just kind of bought in to what we were trying sell as far as their intensity has to be out of the gate. It has to start in warm-ups.”

“We’ve been a notoriously slow starting group all year,” said Campanelli. “So once we kind of got settled in, we were able to understand what that pressure was, and then got some good looks and made [baskets]. Obviously, it didn’t translate the whole game.”

Gahr led 31-13 at the half and continued the pressure in the early moments of the second half, going on a 6-2 run in less than two minutes. Norwalk sophomore David Zazueta, who had been a consistent starter all season, came off the bench to score all seven of his points in less than two minutes in the stanza. Junior Ariel Rodriguez, another consistent starter, also came off the bench and attempted three shots, all coming in the fourth quarter and scored on two of them. Campanelli said both were feeling a little ill.

“I thought David came in late and played well; I thought Ariel came in and played well,” said Campanelli. “But starting Gabriel and [senior] Robert [Salazar] gave us a little bit more size. We were trying to neutralize [Gahr] a little bit that way.”

Nine players scored for the Lancers, but a third of them were starters, led by Tedtaotao, who had nine points on four of eight shooting. Four other players scored four points and Norwalk got 17 rebounds, one on the offensive end.

Gahr was paced by Pearson (15 points, five rebounds, two assists) while Merchant, who had scored in double figures in 15 straight games, was limited to eight points, but also had five boards, three steals and two assists.

“He’s another kid that we’ve been trying to get consistent,” said Girley of Pearson. “He finished well for us last year; he’s a junior this year. So, we have a lot of expectations for him. We give him a lot of responsibilities on both ends. I think he wasn’t thinking about this game; he played free. That’s what we’re trying to get all our kids to understand-if you’re thinking about a mistake, you have a great chance of making a mistake. Josh was just playing in a rhythm; taking what the defense gave him, and he was attacking and finishing in this game as well.”

The Gladiators got points from 10 of the 15 players who suited up, including a career-high 10 points from junior Nathan Herrera, and eight points from Carey, the transfer from Los Alamitos High. All but two attempted a shot and Gahr crashed the boards for 30 rebounds while collecting eight steals.

Now, there is no margin for error for the Lancers, who fell to 10-14, 1-5. They need to win their remaining four games to finish at .500 and be eligible for an at-large berth in the CIF-Southern Section Division 5AA playoffs. 

“We knew we had to try to make a run,” said Campanelli on the approach to the second round of league. “We still have to try to make a run. But I think for us, it was just trying to have good possessions, win a quarter, [or] tie a quarter. We can’t be looking ahead too much. So, that was the mindset. Spirits have been high the whole season; the group is resilient. They didn’t get the win tonight, but we’ll keep trying again.”

Norwalk is also in danger of finishing with a losing mark for the fourth straight season. The last time that happened occurred from before the 1998-1999 season until the 2007-2008 campaign. To go one step further, the Lancers were three points shy of advancing to the semifinals during the 2019-2020 season and since going 18-12 that season, Norwalk has seen its win totals go from four to seven to 11 and now 10. It will visit Bellflower on Wednesday, last place Paramount High on Friday, Warren on Jan. 30 and league-leading Firebaugh High on Feb. 1.

“It’s tough; the kids are showing up and they’re playing,” said Campanelli. “I’ve tried to schedule accordingly. But sometimes those [preseason] tourneys’ schedules don’t match up. Going from one league to the next…to be honest, I don’t think we’re in the right league. I think we should have gone to the 605 League, or I think we should have reached out to a different league. But I don’t make all those decisions. I’m not going to make an excuse; we need to try to get in where we fit in and keep getting better. But it has been tough.”  

Gahr ended a playoff drought of three seasons when it lost to Tustin High 29-18 in last season’s Division 3AA first round. That capped off a 14-14 season and including this season, the Gladiators will have gone at least .500 three straight seasons, five out of the last six and 18 out of the last 20.  

“The goal of every year is to build on what you did the previous year,” said Girley. “What I love about this group of kids is we had lost some key guys from last year and a lot of people kind of left us for dead. I said, ‘basketball is not about an individual’. So, I have a team this year, and I know that it may not be the same guy every game, but I have eight to 10 able bodies, and somebody is always going to pick up the slack.”

Gahr will host Firebaugh on Wednesday and Warren on Friday before going to Bellflower on Jan. 30 and hosting Paramount on Feb. 1.

“There are schools with new groups of people,” said Girley. “You have to get familiar to their style of play. There are some very athletic, fast, up-tempo teams. There’s some more half court traditional teams. There are some teams that have deadly knockdown shooters. So each game is a different adjustment.”