The Cal State Dominguez Hills basketball team graduated two of its career leaders after last season, but instead of mourning their loss Coach Dave Yanai went out and rounded up what is potentially the Toros' best-recruited class ever.
Yanai no longer has four-year stars Kevin Burrell and Tim Watson, but the holdovers and newcomers are so strong that Yanai says flat out he expects to compete for the title in what appears to be a tough California Collegiate Athletic Conference.
The Toros open at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at home against Grand Canyon College. Yanai says it will be the new year before the freshmen are fully integrated into his system--and it will be that long before the offense is clicking on all gears--but he says without hesitation, "I feel good about this group. I think we have a chance to win."
The starting forwards, both 6-4 juniors, are returners William Alexander and Brian Edwards. Alexander, all-CCAA honorable mention last year, averaged 12.4 points and 4.1 rebounds and is the Toros' best all-around player. He already ranks sixth in Dominguez Hills career scoring. Edwards came into his own last year, averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds and eventually playing more minutes than anyone but Burrell.
3 Guards Back
A trio of guards also returns--junior John Nojima, a part-time starter last year, sophomore Vico Nomaaea and sophomore point guard Barry Johnson, who sat out last season working on his grades. Nomaaea, vastly improved after a summer of international ball--he was the star of an American Samoa team and set a scoring record in the Pacific Rim Tournament--is being counted on for some back-court scoring punch.
Those five are the team's veteran nucleus. The real excitement, however, is based on freshmen Tony Akins, Anthony Blackmon, Danny Branch and Darrell Gordon. All were recruited by major colleges and at least one, Akins, will start immediately.
Akins and Blackmon, both 6-6 and brawny, are being asked to fill the void left by Burrell, who was the biggest player in Dominguez Hills history at 6-8, 270. Akins, an all-CIF player at Muir High in Pasadena last year, is called by Yanai "perhaps one of the most talented players to enter our program . . . very physical and not afraid of contact." Akins introduced himself to the Toro faithful last week in an exhibition against the Japanese National Team when he scored on a tremendous two-hand slam dunk after being knocked down by a defender. He also showed a variety of moves around the basket.
Blackmon, a two-time All-City selection at Wilson High, is less polished than Akins but will play backup at both forward and center. At times the two will play together. Yanai likes Blackmon's nose for the ball signified by his 18-rebound average last year.
Together, Yanai said, "they're beautiful kids to work with. They come to practice every day and want to learn. Every game they'll show marked improvement. Our inside game will come slowly with two freshmen but they'll definitely be able to work inside and create some problems."
The only legitimate center Yanai signed is 6-8 Danny Branch out of Dominguez High in Compton. He has been injured and did not play against Japan. Yanai expects him to contribute later.
Gordon, who led Morningside to the CIF 3-A title last year, should see action in the back court. Yanai likes his quickness and ability to work inside.
The Toros play a heavy pre-conference schedule with eight home games and five road games before CCAA play begins Jan. 9.
By then, Yanai expects, fans will see a fast-breaking team that will play tough defense and a strong transition game, a team that won't damage his .589 winning percentage (123-86) in his eight years at the helm including a 20-8 season last year.
"I think we will have a little more up-tempo (offense) compared to the past. We'll be a quick offensive team. I think we have the best perimeter shooting of any team I've had," Yanai said. "I think we have a chance to compete for the (CCAA) championship."