Is it possible that Mater Dei High School, Orange County's prep basketball dynasty, is finally showing signs of vulnerability?
After 47-straight victories, is it possible that the Monarchs are heading for a fall?
It's possible . . . but not probable in tonight's 7:30 game against league rival Servite (2-1, 7-7) at Cypress College. The Friars are tied for second place in the league standings with St. Paul, one game behind the undefeated Monarchs.
Mater Dei (3-0, 18-0) has survived more than its share of close calls lately. On Friday, the Monarchs struggled in edging small but swift Pius X, 65-61.
Earlier this month, Mater Dei escaped with narrow wins against Long Beach Poly (63-59 in overtime) and Westminster (80-77) in nonleague games. Long Beach Poly does not boast one of its best teams this season, and Westminster had only a 3-9 record when it nearly upset the Monarchs.
Gary McKnight, Mater Dei coach, is the only person in a position to suggest that his team is not only mortal, but beatable--in reality, not just in theory.
"We're definitely vulnerable," he said. "I don't think we've been playing that well the past three or four games."
Once upon a time, before the Monarchs had the likes of '85 graduates Tom Lewis (USC) and Mike Mitchell (Fresno State), it used to be that the Servite-Mater Dei games provided the perfect conditions for stunning upsets and exciting finishes.
"Servite and us have had some great battles," McKnight said. "The trouble with Servite-Mater Dei is that it's an emotional game and sometimes emotions take precedence over who's supposed to be better on paper."
That was the history of the game, but in the past 3 1/2 seasons, it's faded into just that, history. In 1982, the Friars beat Mater Dei twice. Since then, no league team has managed it even once.
Although McKnight said his team has been committing too many turnovers in the past few games, an average of 17, the Monarchs have some definite advantages over Servite--their talented inside players, senior forward Stuart Thomas (19.8 points per game average) and junior center LeRon Ellis.
"I'm wondering how we're going to stop their inside game," Larry Walker, Servite coach, said. "Their big people are just older and better than our big people. We have a problem there." Servite counters Thomas and Ellis with 6-8 junior John Arabia and 6-7 sophomore Nick Marusich.
One area where the Friars probably have an edge is at guard, although Mater Dei's Tom Peabody should be back at full strength tonight after missing most of the past two games because of a knee injury.
Mike Murphy, Pius X coach, called Servite's Tony Smalley the best guard his team had faced this season. Smalley, a junior, is averaging 18.6 points a game; the other Friar guard, senior Bob Coady, is second in the county in assists with an average of 8.5.
Foothill (7-0, 15-3) at Orange (3-4, 8-10): Although the Panthers are in fifth place, they have been improving rapidly and could give the undefeated Knights their second serious challenge of the week. Foothill, led by guard Derek Johnson (18.2 points), is coming off a last-second, 40-38 win over Santa Ana. Orange's David Roth is averaging 19.5 points per game. Also: Canyon at Santa Ana, El Modena at Villa Park and Tustin at Santa Ana Valley.
El Dorado (6-1, 14-3) at Katella (6-1, 14-3): These teams are sharing first place after distancing themselves from two other contenders with important wins Wednesday. The Golden Hawks beat Los Alamitos, 86-81, while the Knights beat Cypress, 76-70. After weeks of parity at the top of the standings, tonight's winner will take command of first place. The Hawks won the first matchup. Also: Kennedy at Cypress, Los Alamitos at Esperanza and Pacifica at Loara.
Sunny Hills (1-2, 3-10) at Fullerton (1-2, 10-7): This time, the advantage in the rivalry belongs to experienced Fullerton, which is led by guard Mike Hetland and forward Ralph Tallant. These teams are among four tied for third and last place in the league standings behind Troy and Buena Park. Both the Lancers and the Indians earned their first league victories Wednesday as Fullerton beat La Habra, 82-60, and Sunny Hills defeated Sonora, 60-39. Also: Sonora at Buena Park and Troy at La Habra.
Bolsa Grande (3-1, 10-6) at Garden Grove (2-2, 11-7): After losing to Rancho Alamitos, 67-58, Wednesday, the Matadors need a win tonight to hang onto sole possession of second place. The Argonauts, coming off a 70-51 loss to Los Amigos, are tied for third. Bolsa Grande will rely on the strong rebounding of Joe Small (10.7 average) and Tom Afdahl (8.8). Small, a 6-2 junior forward, is also the most accurate shooter in the county, making 59% of his field goal attempts. Also: Los Amigos at La Quinta and Rancho Alamitos at Santiago.