At the end of Mater Dei High School's first basketball practice last fall, Coach Gary McKnight encouraged his players to finish the workout by running a lap to prepare for Servite. Just the mention of the Monarchs' Angelus League rival is usually enough to inspire team members.
Well, most of them anyway.
A slight 6-foot 10-inch junior transfer from Parkrose High School in Oregon didn't know the difference between Servite and any other Orange County high school. He didn't understand that no matter how many championships Mater Dei won, the season was nothing without beating the Friars.
But, since that first practice, center LeRon Ellis has learned how Servite used to dominate the league like Mater Dei does now. He also learned about the Monarchs' 29-game winning streak last season and their two CIF Southern Section championships in the last three years.
"I didn't want to run a lap for Servite, I didn't even know who they were," Ellis said. "I came here and it took a while for me to learn everything. I heard we had to live up to last year's team and we all felt like we had to carry the tradition and the winning streak on. I knew it was a good program, but it just took me a while to learn the history."
Last week, instead of learning Mater Dei basketball history, Ellis helped make it.
Ellis, The Times Player of the Week, scored a career-high 30 points and had 12 rebounds in Mater Dei's 86-59 victory over Serra for the Southern Section 5-A championship Saturday night. He also was named the Most Valuable Player of the finals. In the semifinals on Wednesday, he scored 22 points and to help Mater Dei defeat St. Bernard, 62-58.
Ellis' biggest impact on Mater Dei this season was not his scoring or rebounding.
His presence allowed McKnight to play 6-9 Stuart Thomas, who would have been the center, at forward and 6-5 Jim Dwyer, who would have played small forward, at the wing.
"He's without a doubt a true center," McKnight said. "Without him, it would have been a lot tougher for us to repeat as CIF champions. We could have done it, but I doubt we could have gone undefeated.
"He has a chance to go on to be the best center to come out of Orange County. It seems like every major school in the country is calling or sending letters. He got 13 letters in one day."
Ellis enrolled at Mater Dei after his father LeRoy, a National Basketball Assn. player for 14 seasons and a member of the 1971-72 champion Lakers, moved to Southern California to enter the tire store business. LeRon had the option of staying in Portland until the rest of the family moved but decided to come down early with his father.
Even then, Mater Dei was not where he intended to go. The family was going to settle in Palos Verdes but the store location changed to Orange and the family moved to Anaheim.
"I really didn't care where I went," Ellis said. "I knew the basketball was better down here. I just wanted to get enrolled and get ready for school. There are some good players in Oregon, but, it's more relaxed and laid back. They don't take high school basketball as seriously as they do here."
While at Parkrose, Ellis and his brother LeRoy Jr., who is playing for the University of the Pacific, played on two teams that made it to the state semifinals. Sister Lisa was a redshirt at Cal State Long Beach and will play basketball there next season.
Mater Dei High School
Height, Class: 6-10, Jr.
Last Week: Scored 52 points and had 18 rebounds.
Season: Is averaging 15.9 points and 7 rebounds per game.