Hail Gary: As Mater Dei High School's Gary McKnight strolled into the CIF Southern Section office Sunday afternoon to pick up his tournament draw sheet, Jim McClune, St. Bernard coach, extended his arms and bowed in reverence to the Monarch coach.
Although it was a facetious gesture, it undoubtedly reflected the feelings of most coaches, who believe the Monarchs are kings--at least of the 5-A division.
With Saturday's win over rival Servite, Mater Dei completed its second straight undefeated season (25-0) and, Sunday, the Monarchs earned the top seed for the 5-A tournament. Mater Dei will play St. Francis in the first round Thursday night at Chapman College.
The 5-A division isn't nearly as competitive as the 4-A division this season, most coaches say. Of the 33 teams in the 4-A tournament, 11 have won 20 games or more. Only 2 of 16 teams in the 5-A tournament--Mater Dei and Serra--can boast 20-win seasons.
Combining records, 4-A division teams have a winning percentage of .726 (583-220); 5-A teams have a winning percentage of .661 (251-129).
With Sunset League champion Ocean View ruled ineligible for the playoffs, the Monarchs clearly are the class of the 5-A field, and coaches such as McClune are hoping that McKnight and his players believe they are the class of the field, so that Mater Dei might be overconfident come tournament time.
But McKnight isn't buying all this stuff about being the heavy favorite and having an easy road to the championship game.
"If they really feel we're going to be in the finals, why don't they give us the trophy now and we won't play the next four games," he said. "We're not so dominant a team that we're going to go straight to the finals. Several teams have given us trouble this year."
Well, actually just two 5-A teams have challenged the Monarchs. Mater Dei needed an overtime period to defeat Long Beach Poly, 63-59, and St. Bernard lost to the Monarchs by three, 61-58.
The Monarchs breezed through the Angelus League to increase their winning streak to 54 games. The Southern Section record is 66, set by Compton from 1968-70. McKnight, however, tries not to think about the streak.
"You can get wrapped up in it, but I don't think it's in the players' minds," he said. "They're more concerned with winning. The streak isn't even in the picture now. A lot of people are talking about state playoffs, but the Southern Section tournament is the most important thing right now."
P.S. I love you: As most 5-A coaches at the Southern Section office Sunday pondered their slim chances of winning a title with Mater Dei in the division, and as 4-A coaches wondered how they would ever make it past the second round of such a tough tournament, La Quinta Coach Jim Perry spent the weekend in Palm Springs relaxing with his wife and son.
Why get all worked up over a playoff draw?
"I don't care who we play--someone has to play the good teams," Perry said. "If they ask us to play a great team, we'll go there and play them."
You asked for it? You got it. La Quinta will play third-seeded Hacienda Heights Wilson (22-3) in Friday night's first round of the 3-A tournament.
But that's OK. Considering La Quinta began Garden Grove League play with three losses, Perry really is just glad to be in the tournament. The Aztecs (9-11) came on to win six of their last seven league games to edge Garden Grove for third place and the final playoff spot.
There has been a noticeable difference in La Quinta's play of late--a difference of about 6-foot 8 1/2-inches in the form of a junior center named Brian Joe.
Joe, playing his second year of organized basketball, began the season on the varsity team but was moved to the junior varsity after six games to gain experience. Perry brought him up for the second half of league play, and, since becoming a starter four games ago, the Aztecs have not lost.
Joe has averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds a game, has been blocking shots and forcing opponents to alter other shots, and has taken a lot of pressure off 6-6 junior forward Mike Whitcomb, La Quinta's leading scorer and rebounder.
Add to that two senior guards (Eric Ramsey and Bart Recktenwald), a junior guard who has been averaging 17 points in league play (Kenny Bennett) and a healthy bench which includes sophomore forward Arri Buford, who was averaging 15 points and 6 rebounds before breaking his hand in the first league game, and you have a team that is peaking for the playoffs.
"We have everyone healthy for the first time, and we're playing with confidence now," Perry said. "It's ludicrous to think we'll win the thing, but we've always done well in the playoffs."
No rest for the weary: Saddleback, which played three games in a 24-hour span over the weekend and won two games Saturday to earn third-place and a playoff berth in the Sea View League, didn't receive any breaks in Sunday's 4-A draw.