Mater Dei High School Coach Gary McKnight said it Saturday night after his team beat Ocean View, 69-58, to win the Southern Section 5-A championship and become the first big-division school to complete an undefeated season since Inglewood accomplished the feat in 1980: "(Orange) county's always had quality coaches, but now they're starting to develop quality programs."
Presumably, McKnight was making reference to the fact that the first-ever 5-A title game had a distinct Orange tint to it. Few would have predicted that--when the Southern Section went to an expanded playoff format that included a 5-A bracket--Orange County teams would meet for the championship.
Some might suggest that this showing is evidence that Orange County basketball has indeed reached full-fledged respectability; that an all-county matchup in the final signals an end to the days when a big-division championship passed the county by . . . for 46 years.
Such a conclusion would be premature. Before we break out in a chorus of praise for the new levels county basketball has reached, let's put a few things in perspective.
Mater Dei, the team that broke that 46-year drought two seasons ago, is not like most Orange County teams. The Monarchs rise to prominence over the past three season is due largely to a collection of talented athletes who, through the wonder of open enrollment, were able to land at one school. As a parochial school, Mater Dei is not limited by district boundaries, and players have come from all corners of the county to join the high-profile program there.
Tom Lewis, Mike Mitchell and Stuart Thomas combined to form the heart of the Monarchs' unbeaten, championship team this season. Lewis is a transfer from Capistrano Valley, Mitchell from Gahr in Cerritos and Thomas from Fountain Valley.
Jim Harris has been the coach at Ocean View throughout the school's brief history, and has quickly built one of Orange County's most successful programs. The Seahawks have reached the playoffs in each of their seven years. This season, Harris nearly reached the pinnacle. It began with his team drawing attention by reaching the championship game of the Tournament of Champions, where it lost to Mater Dei, 57-52. It ended in surprise, with Ocean View making its first appearence in a Southern Section final after upsetting defending 4-A champion Long Beach Poly in the semifinals.
But Ocean View, like Mater Dei, had some help from outside Orange County this year. Ricky Butler and Desi Hazely are both transfers from Lynwood. Butler was the Sunset League's Most Valuable Player and the Seahawks' leading rebounder. Hazely played an important role as Ocean View's sixth man.
The average Orange County program would have difficulty surviving the 5-A bracket and reaching the championship game. Mater Dei and Ocean View are not average county programs.
The 5-A debate: Throughout the playoffs, a number of coaches voiced their displeasure with the newly formed 5-A division, and many said they hoped it was an experiment that would last only one season. Reviews were mixed at best.
The Sunset League protested being placed in that division when it was formed last spring, but one of its teams--Ocean View--didn't seem to have much trouble competing in it. Harris said he has mixed feelings about the revised playoff format.
"I'm a little torn," he said. "Personally, I like to compete with whoever's the best. But if it got to a point where it would be impossible for our league to compete, I'd rather not be in it."
We'll never know: The best prep basketball team in Southern California? Well, there are three teams that could make a legitimate case for that title. Mater Dei, 4-A champion Glendale and City Section champion Crenshaw are undefeated. But only Crenshaw has gone on to compete for the state championship. The Southern Section, of which Mater Dei and Glendale are members, voted last year not to compete in the state tournament this season.
That decision may have deprived prep basketball fans of a classic matchup. There is no chance for Mater Dei and Crenshaw to meet on the court to determine the unofficial Southern California champion. A Mater Dei-Glendale game would also have settled a few arguments.
Glendale Coach Steve Keith has charged McKnight with backing out of an opportunity to play the Dynamiters in a nonleague game last December 1.
McKnight's response: "I already had a game scheduled (the Monarchs were at Dos Pueblos) and I just couldn't get out of it. If he's trying to figure out who's No. 1 and who's No. 2, why didn't he get into the Tournament of Champions? Maybe it's too big for him."
McKnight was asked after the 5-A championship if he regretted not having an opportunity to play Crenshaw, and his reaction boardered on defensive. It seems it has been suggested that Mater Dei has avoided such a meeting, a charge McKnight denies.