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Boys of winter: Who will rise?

Golden Valley and West Ranch have thrown off the Foothill League

Posted: January 12, 2009 9:43 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2009 4:55 a.m.
For years, Foothill League boys basketball has had a definitive upper tier.

But the talent seems to be spread across the league this season, and because of the parity, 2009 could be a different from the past.

Golden Valley's certainly hoping it is.

A year ago, the Grizzlies shot out of the gates in pre-league play and appeared ready to make an ascent to the top of the Foothill League.

After posting an 0-10 conference mark, they had some regrouping to do.

And regroup they did, because they've been even stronger this season, ripping off 15 wins in 16 tries.

So how does Golden Valley avoid history repeating itself?
"It all depends on maturity," said head coach Chris Printz. "Little maturity things here and there got the better of us last year, but we've worked tirelessly in the offseason and into this season to be prepared for mental challenges."

Unlike last season, the Grizzlies have a wealth of leadership and weapons to help navigate those challenges.

Four-year varsity player Maverick Ahanmisi can get to the rim and hit shots from Santa Barbara. Junior captain Trevor Wiseman is big enough to bang down low and limber enough to lead fast breaks. Senior Stevie Thornton can set the table offensively and break down defenses off the dribble. Swingman Erick Serrano makes all the hustle plays and is a sniper from the perimeter.

The overall versatility and athleticism of Golden Valley is impressive. Just don't mention it around Printz.

"I almost hate nowadays when our team is described as athletic because I don't think it gives enough credit to my guys for how hard they defend and how hard they work," he said. "We firmly believe that to win you have to defend and rebound, and we take pride in our defense."

That full-court brand of defense helped Golden Valley win the Simi Valley Tip-Off Classic and the Hart Holiday Classic, but the Grizzlies know better than anyone that pre-league accomplishments count for nothing during league play.

"I don't think anyone else outside of Golden Valley is going to believe in us until we prove it," Printz said. "So we cherish those opportunities."

Defending Foothill League champion Valencia will have something to say about that - but many of the key players from last year's team won't.

All five starters graduated at Valencia, and now it's the younger brother of former starter John Otavka that's setting the pace for the Vikings (11-4).

"Cory Otavka's playing really well," said head coach Rocket Collins, now in his ninth year with the program. "He's probably our most consistent player. We have a decent mix, and some other guys have stepped up and done pretty well."

One of those guys is Lonnie Jackson, who brings a gaudy 23.3 points-per-game scoring average into league play. Jackson was the MVP of the Canyon Classic, which Valencia won, and the silky smooth sophomore can attack the basket as well as shoot from the outside.

Senior forwards Emmanuel Anumba and Olatokunbo Oshodi give Valencia a strong inside presence at both ends, and they should be bolstered by the arrival of Kevin Rush, who got a late start on the hardwood because of football.

Even with the reloaded roster, the Vikings have shown the ability to play together and overwhelm opponents. Now it becomes a matter of fixing the somewhat up-and-down nature of their play.

"We can't take a night off," Collins said. "Everybody's good. We have to try to take care of business at home and get a few on the road, but it's going to be tough."

West Ranch (11-5) hopes to make it that way for everyone else.

A total of 11 seniors return to the Wildcats, and none are more talented than guard David Franklin, who is the No. 1 option on offense and leads the team in scoring.

But as head coach Sean Legaux noted, West Ranch is far from a solo act.

"We've had games this year where Dave's had 29 points and we've played well," he said. "And we've had games where he's scored nine and we've played well, so we're definitely balanced."

West Ranch also features dangerous co-captain Will Tate in the backcourt and 6-foot-5-inch center Hakeem Bradley. Six players average at least five points per game for the Wildcats, who finished third in the Foothill League last winter.

Thanks to their solid start, the rest of the league would be wise to take notice. Legaux, however, isn't ready to slap a target on his team's back.

"I don't think we have a target on our back any more than anyone else," he said. "I think we're right there in the mix with everybody else."

The Wildcats weren't with everybody else prior to league play. West Ranch is the only Foothill team that hasn't faced another league opponent this season, but Legaux said it wasn't deliberate and doesn't expect to gain any advantage from it.

"We don't have new faces," he said. "The guys who play the most minutes for us played the last two years. I don't think we're going to surprise anybody."

Former Saugus head coach Jeff Hallman surprised some people by resigning after last season.

Taking his place is Derek Ballard, who was an assistant under Hallman in 1999-2000 and served as the junior varsity coach before being tabbed to lead the varsity squad.

"It's been a learning curve for me," Ballard said. "What works on the varsity level doesn't necessarily work on the lower level, and vice-versa, so what we try to do is learn through these games."

The Centurions (8-8) learned quickly that they have a pair of dynamic slashers on their roster in senior guard Mark Watanabe and junior guard Jawhar Purdy. They'll need that kind of playmaking ability, because the offense lost its top six scorers from last year.

But Ballard is confident.

"It doesn't matter who we lost last year," Ballard said. "I believe in the guys that we have this year, and we're poised to make a run. Whether we have real varsity experience or not, we feel we can make a run at this thing."

Those players grew up under Ballard, who coached most of them on junior varsity. That has made for an easier transition into Ballard's up-tempo style, which is much different than Hallman's strategy.

"We go a lot faster, defensively and offensively," Ballard said. "We try to get a lot of transition and get some turnovers off the press, and that allows us to get some shots. If we're playing well, we can have a shot at (league)."

Hart (11-6) is used to having a shot at a league title, and this season should be no exception.

The Indians accounted for the only blemish on Golden Valley's record, a 63-60 victory over the Grizzlies at the San Fernando Valley Invitational on Dec. 22.

Head Coach Tom Kelly said it's just indicative of the Foothill League this season.

"This is my ninth year, and it's never been this balanced," he said. "The previous eight years, there were two teams at the top and the other teams were fighting to get into the mix, but this year it's open season."

After two years of school in South Carolina, senior guard Patrick Abbott is back to lead Hart, and he's already put the rest of the league on notice with his play.

"Abbott is a consummate player," Kelly said. "He can go inside, outside. He can handle the ball. He can guard bigger players and smaller players. He's pretty versatile."

Down low, the Indians get strong contributions from the 6-foot-4-inch Parker Dominguez, who is averaging a double-double with a team-leading 16.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.

Senior sharpshooter Brad Wyche is also back, and because of the graduation of point guard Levi Wenrich, Wyche will be the primary ball-handler when the Indians aren't being pressed by league opponents.

Hart has gotten a good look at those opponents, especially Golden Valley. The two teams have already met twice, and Kelly isn't sure if that exposure helps or hurts.

"One thing every team does well is scout," he said. "I have film on everybody in our league already and I'm sure everybody else does, and everybody in our league does their homework."

The report card on Canyon (6-10) isn't quite complete because the Cowboys are adapting to a new offense.

The emergence of freshman center Brandon Perry has allowed head coach Chad Phillips to limit the loss of center Cody Anderson and run a four-out offense, with four shooters spacing the floor around Perry, who anchors the team in the low block.

"Brandon's been a very nice surprise," Phillips said. "He's very fine-tuned for a freshman. He's very active. He has a nice touch around the basket. He's a pleasure to coach."

Senior co-captains Mike Edwards and Kyle Barrett lead the corps of perimeter players, while senior forward Jonathan Lawson has athleticism to spare to control the paint.

It will also be important for junior Erik Gould and freshman Coley Apsay to run the offense in place of departed point guard Mark Lewis.

"Erik's done a pretty nice job stepping in," Phillips said. "His major role is distributing the ball. Coley Apsay is playing some pretty solid point guard minutes for us. As long as my guards cut back their turnovers, I think we're going to be OK."

Turnovers have been a problem for Canyon at critical points in the pre-league season. Phillips believes that no matter how much teams impose their press defense, the ability to execute down the stretch will be vital.

"The press will probably get you a few wins, but fourth-quarter execution is most important," he said. "Half-court execution on defense is most important. How we execute in that regard will determine the outcome of the game."


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