_____________________________ ST. NORBERT CHURCH           RATES ________________________

Socialize

CIF-SS BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW – Area stacked with six teams keeping their seasons alive

February 7, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

The drive for five begins on Wednesday as first round action of the CIF-Southern Section boys basketball playoffs gets under way. For six of the eight area teams, five wins is what it takes to win a divisional championship, except for La Mirada High, which received a first round bye.

DIVISION 1

#12 Mira Costa High or St. Bernard High @ #6 La Mirada (21-7 overall, 8-0 in the Gateway League, first place).

La Mirada was one five teams in the division to go straight to Friday’s second round game where it will host either Mira Costa, the third place team from the Bay League, or St. Bernard, which tied for second place in the Del Rey League. The Matadores played one of the toughest schedules in the CIF-SS, probably in Southern California, too. They won 10 of their first 11 games, including taking the championship of the Rumble for Rosecrans Ave. Tournament and third place in the St. John Bosco Braves Winter Classic. But La Mirada stumbled in the middle of the season, losing five straight games before ending the season with 10 straight wins. During the midseason slump, La Mirada lost a pair of two-point games to Branson High out of Ross, CA, and Chandler, AZ-based Basha High, and a four-point affair to St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy.

The Matadores went 6-3 against Division 1 teams, including a one-point win against Damien High to win the first tournament of the season, a double overtime victory over Rancho Cucamonga High on Jan. 6 and a one-point victory against St. Paul High on Jan. 15. A potential second round opponent could be Damien, which is ranked third in the division. Damien also received a first round bye.

La Mirada has been paced all season by freshman Gene Roebuck, who had 650 points entering the final regular season game, and last season’s star, junior Julien Gomez, who was at exactly 500 points entering last Thursday’s home game against Downey High.    

DIVISION 2AA

Valley Christian High (16-12 overall, 3-5 in the Olympic League, fourth place) @ #15 Saugus High (21-7 overall, Foothill League champions).

V.C. may not have earned an automatic berth to the playoffs but finishing four games over .500 was worthy enough to get an at-large berth. The Defenders faced two teams in Division 1-Redondo Union High and Village Christian High, and went 1-2, defeating the latter by a point in the last game of the regular season. The Defenders went 3-5 against teams in their division and 1-3 against teams in Division 2A.

V.C. began the season losing four of its first six games, including three by a combined eight points before taking eight of the next nine games. In January, the Defenders had two straight three-point losses and another setback by points. They have a solid starting five of seniors Chris Allen, Jacob Bayla, Ryan Caracoza, Myles Harvey and Gavin Stahl, though junior Bryce Shepherd and sophomore Josiah James started some games in December.

Saugus has won four straight games and eight of its last 10. The only common opponent is Loyola High, which edged V.C. by three points but lost to the Centurions by 21 points.

The winner plays either #2 Campbell Hall High or Simi Valley High in the second round on Friday.

DIVISION 3AA

Artesia High (18-9 overall, 8-2 in the 605 League, second place) @ #12 Camarillo High (18-10 overall, tied for second place in the Coastal Canyon League).

After winning back to back 605 League championships, Artesia finished in second place with its lone league setbacks coming to Cerritos High in close contests. On Jan. 5, in the second league game of the season, the Dons edged Artesia 50-47 while the rematch on Jan. 24 was a 52-47 affair.

“I think our seeding was kind of where we should have been,” said Artesia head coach Jeff Myles. “Obviously, we didn’t win as many games as we did in the past. But we don’t mind long road trips. I kind of scheduled long road trips just to kind of get us ready for the playoffs.”

The Pioneers lost their only game against a division team, Beckman High, 56-41 on Nov. 29. But they defeated Division 1 foe Downey 50-41 in the third game of the season and went winless against three other higher division teams, including a two-point loss to Beverly Hills High of Division 2A.

Artesia went 3-0 against teams from the CIF-Los Angeles City Section, defeated Steele Canyon High of the San Diego Section 66-57 on Jan. 15 and lost two of three games against Florida teams during the Osceola Holiday Tournament, Dec. 19-21. The Pioneers began the season with three straight wins, four of its first five and seven of its first 10 before heading to Florida.

The heart and soul for the Pioneers is senior Zion Staples, who is 47 points shy of 500 for the season. Senior Joshua Martinez is next with 301 points while three other players have scored at least 100 points. Juniors Cayden Del Rosario, C.J. Okeke and Jovell Tate could be key factors other than Martinez and Staples.

“I really had no expectations of this year,” said Myles. “This is pretty much a brand new team besides Zion, who pretty much is our only returner with experience. Even though Josh Martinez was a starter last year, he only started half the games, and he was the third or the fourth option. Everybody else played five to seven minutes and some games they didn’t play at all.”

Camarillo tied Simi Valley High for second place in the Coastal Canyon League with a 5-3 mark, a game behind Oak Park High. The Scorpions had won seven straight games before falling to Oak Park by four points last Friday. Artesia and Camarillo didn’t face a common opponent, however, the Scorpions defeated Mayfair High 50-38 on Dec. 28. The Pioneers were scheduled to play Mayfair last Saturday.

“I really didn’t want to look past the first round because the first one is always the hardest one,” said Myles of the bracket. “I’ve only looked at Camarillo and I looked at our potential second round opponent. Other than that, I couldn’t tell you who is who because if you try to look past anybody, you’ll end up losing bad right away.”

The winner plays either Pilibos High or St. Margaret’s High in the second round on Friday.

DIVISION 3A

#12 Huntington Beach High (15-13 overall, tied for third place in the Wave League) @ #16 Gahr High (18-8, 8-2 in the Mid-Cities League, tied for first place).

The Gladiators benefited from a weak league to share the title with Firebaugh High. It’s the first time Gahr has won a league title since the 2016-2017 season, which was also shared. Two seasons prior, the Gladiators won the San Gabriel Valley League outright. Gahr and Firebaugh split their games with Gahr winning at home by eight points on Jan. 24. Only Warren High, whom the Gladiators swept, is the only league team in the same division. The other four teams are in Divisions 4AA and below.

“I felt we had a really good chance of being somewhere in the top three,” said Gahr head coach Marcus Girley. “But once you get into league, every game for the most part is going to be a dogfight. I try not to get myself too high or get too low. I always try to get a reasonable measurement to reach.”

Gahr, which is riding a six-game winning streak faced a pair of Division 1 teams in the St. John Bosco Braves Winter Classic and lost both times. It also faced five teams in higher divisions and went 3-2 against them. Huntington Beach defeated Laguna Beach High in the last game of the regular season to snap a 10-game losing streak. Before that, the Oilers won 14 of their first 17 games. Gahr and Huntington Beach went a combined 7-0 against California High, Norwalk High and Salesian High.

“They’re going to be a really good team,” said Girley of Huntington Beach. “They can shoot the ball [and] they’re pretty active defensively. We saw them a little bit in the summer, but in the summer, everything is different. I think it’s definitely going to be a good game. It’s one of those games where we definitely have a chance to win, but I know we’re going to have to play almost perfect to beat them.”

Miles Merchant, Gahr’s leading scorer, is the lone senior starter with juniors Uchenna Okoli and Joshua Pearson and sophomore Austin Woon three other consistent starters. The fifth one has been bounced around from juniors Ethan Carey, a transfer who wasn’t eligible since late December and Jace Martinez-Nero, who started some games early in the season and sophomore Rom an Acosta, a spot starter here and there.

“I try to stick to what I’ve been doing,” said Girley. “So, for the most part, Ethan Carey has been coming off the bench with the exception of maybe a game or two due to an injury. Normally, my fifth starter alternates between Roman Acosta and Jace Martinez-Nero. They’re both like scrappy guards; they’re kind of gamers and really competitive. They’re just two high energy guys.”

The winner plays either Rowland High or #5 Woodbridge High in the second round on Friday.

DIVISION 4AA

Jurupa Valley High (13-15 overall, second place in the Mountain Valley League) @ #3 Cerritos High (17-10, 10-0 in the 605 League, first place).

After seeing Arteria win the 605 League that past two seasons, Cerritos finished on top again and won all 10 league games for the third time in the past five seasons. The Dons were also Suburban League champions the season before the 605 League was formed. Because of the non-league schedule the Dons played, they were rewarded by being ranked third in the division.

“We weren’t really worried about rankings,” said longtime head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “Our girls went to the finals [in 2022] unranked. We’re aware of it…and it wasn’t something that we really were concerned about. I’m sure placement does help, but when it comes down to it, you need to win five games. You need to beat all the tough opponents in some order. We’re just trying to win championships.”

Watanabe has never been shy about playing strong competition, and this past season is no exception. The Dons faced one league team in a higher division [Artesia], swept Whitney High, which is in the same division and lost to Division 1 Los Alamitos High 101-81 on Nov. 24.

Cerritos went 2-1 against teams from Division 2AA, winless against a pair of teams from Division 2A, split four games against teams from Division 3AA, with both victories coming against Chaparral High and lost to three teams from Division 3A, including a two-point overtime contest against city rival Gahr. Cerritos also went 1-1 against teams from San Diego while participating in the Mt. Carmel Holiday Tournament.

“It’s been a long two-year process,” said Watanabe. “Going back to last year, we were definitely not ready to play the schedule that we did last year with a very young, inexperienced team. We were hoping it would be a little bit earlier, but we did get a win [in the playoffs] last year and that was a big accomplishment for our guys, to know what it’s like to win a playoff game. You always want to play the highest level of competition that you can play because it’s only going to make you better.”

Watanabe has started seniors Osinachi Agaranna, Tobenna Ozoagu, Shay Pema and Luke Rigor and junior Benson Cho 18 times this season and all five have scored at least 143 points. But the Dons have received key contributions off the bench from juniors Jaylen Barsana. Nathan Dawit and Nathan Ju and sophomore Yukki Yamamoto. In the league, Pema averaged 14.3 points per game, which was second behind Staples.

“All 15 players have stepped up in key moments,” said Watanabe. “They all have the experience, so I think anybody who is ready can be called on and will be ready to fulfil those roles.”

Jurupa Valley won seven of its final eight games to finish in second place in the Mountain Valley League, a game behind Indian Springs High, but still finished two games under .500 because the Jaguars lost seven of their first 10 games. Cerritos and Jurupa Valley did not have a common opponent this season.

The winner plays either Fontana High or Yucca Valley High in the second round on Friday.

DIVISION 4AA

Whitney (15-10 overall, 6-4 in the 605 League, third place) @ #8 Milken Community (17-8 overall, Independence League champions).

Whitney, feeding off the success of last season when it played in the Southern California Regionals, had another banner season as the program continues to be a force in the league, losing to Artesia by four points on Jan. 9 and to league champion Cerritos by 12 points last Thursday. The Wildcats, who have won 37 games over the past two seasons, had consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins for the first time since 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. They went 0-3 against teams in their division, 2-1 against teams in Division 4A and winless against five tries against teams in higher divisions.

“We got Milken in the first round, and I think that’s a winnable game for us,” said Whitney first-year head coach Nasir Akmal. “Obviously, it’s going to be a challenge, but I like our chances in that game. I’m not a fan of us going up against a number 1 team if we get to the quarterfinals. But we have to see them at some point.

“We’re ready to shake things up for people,” he continued. “If they want to underestimate us, that’s fine. We’re good with an upset.”

Whitney won its first three games of the season and eight of its first 10 games. But of the 10 losses, half of them were by 20 points or more. The heart and soul of the team is junior Morgan Marks, who can reach 300 points with a strong performance against Milken Community, He has been held under 10 points five times. Senior Joseph Whittaker and juniors Christian Carreon and Alex Cheng have been the other consistent starters while the last one as of late has been freshman Jezreel Dela Cruz. He replaces senior Sakeef Sekender, who has missed the second half of league action due to an ankle injury.

“Everyone kind of knows that at this point, it’s next man up,” said Akmal. “A lot of the guys who are returners know how our season was last year when it was filled with injuries. So, at this point, I think they’re accustomed to just having to make do.”

Milken Community began the season with five straight wins and after two consecutive losses, went on a seven-game winning streak. Despite losing just one Independence League game, four of the five teams in the league won at least 13 games and were .500 or better. Milken Community and Whitney, both of whom are the Wildcats, faced Hawthorne and came away with wins of 34 and 61 points, respectively.

“They have size and I think that’s just going to be the issue for us going forward anyway,” said Akmal. “But our guys have been used to playing bigger teams; more athletic teams. For us, we just have to be disruptive on the defensive end and offensively, our guys just need to settle down and confident and poised.”

The winner plays either Lakeside High or Workman High in the second round on Friday.