The record speaks for itself. Mater Dei High School has made four consecutive appearances in Southern Section championship games, won three titles and a posted a 116-6 record under Coach Gary McKnight.
So it should come as no surprise that the Monarchs will be the top-ranked basketball team in Orange County when the season begins Monday. No county team has beaten Mater Dei since McKnight was named the school's coach for the 1982-83 season.
Perennial powers Crenshaw and Long Beach Poly have defeated Mater Dei twice under McKnight, all four games going into overtime. Crenshaw's memorable double-overtime victory in last season's Southern California Regionals snapped the Monarchs' 59-game winning streak.
The other losses came against St. Bernard in McKnight's first season and nationally renowned DeMatha in his second. Mater Dei has rolled to 42 straight Angelus League victories under McKnight.
"How many coaches do you know who could name all their losses in the past four years?" McKnight asked. Then again, how many high school coaches have starters living in Tustin, Mission Viejo, South Laguna, Laguna Niguel and Long Beach?
LeRon Ellis' home became a popular stop-off for college coaches across the nation during the off-season. Ellis, a 6-foot 10-inch All-American center, eventually signed to attend the University of Kentucky next September.
Ellis averaged 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds as a junior, establishing himself as one of the county's top players in the playoffs and regionals.
"LeRon was so graceful for a big man last season, and now he's matured physically," McKnight said. Ellis played on the Monarchs' water polo team in the fall, giving him added strength for basketball.
Kevin Rembert, the team's sixth man last season as a sophomore, will move into the starting lineup. Rembert, 6-4, is an excellent leaper and one of four standout juniors on the team. Forward Char Ruppel and guards Mike Hopkins and Mark Ramstack are the other talented underclassmen.
Chris Patton, beginning his fourth season on the varsity, will start at point guard, but look for Ramstack to move into the starting lineup before the Monarchs travel to Arkansas for the King Cotton Classic Dec. 31.
Looming on the horizon is 6-7 freshman Derrick Stone. He practices with the varsity, but will play on the freshman team.
There are some formidable opponents on Mater Dei's schedule this season, however. Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today and Street & Smith magazine, is among the entries in the King Cotton Classic.
The Monarchs also play in the Orange tournament where powers Dominguez and Santa Clara are entered along with Santa Ana. There are also nonleague games against Capistrano Valley and Ocean View, two teams capable of ending McKnight's county reign.
Mater Dei is clearly No. 1; the level of talent drops considerably among the remaining top 10 teams in the county. Ocean View is a consensus No. 2, but then there are 15 teams that are virtually equal.
2. OCEAN VIEW
After a lengthy and losing court battle last February against the Southern Section over the right to participate in the playoffs, Ocean View is back.
All sanctions against the Seahawks have been lifted, meaning Ocean View is eligible for the postseason tournament.
Bookend 6-6 forwards Ricky Butler and Desi Hazely led the Seahawks to a 20-4 record, but their eligibility status was also the reason Ocean View forfeited its 1985 runner-up trophy and was unable to compete in the playoffs.
Butler was overweight and played with little motivation during the summer, but he has lost 15 pounds, and Ocean View Coach Jim Harris said Butler is ready for a big season. Butler, who signed with Kansas, averaged 16.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and shot 62% from the field as a junior.
Hazely shot 54% from the field last season and vastly improved during the summer.
"He's the best athlete on the team, but he's always been hesitant to show what he can do," Harris said. "Now, he's a confident player."
Shooting guard Doug Rice heads a talented cast from a 24-0 junior varsity. Harris plans to use 10 players with 12 seniors and 2 sophomores on the roster.
"Our game plan is pressure defense with an up-tempo offensive style of play," Harris said. "Ricky and Desi will be the cornerstones of our team, but 10 players will contribute."
3. EL TORO
That's right, the school with the county's best football team will also have a fine basketball team . . . once the football season ends.
El Toro will likely be missing two starters and its backup center when the Chargers open the season Dec. 6 at Saddleback. Quarterback Bret Johnson and tackles Cory Wayland and Scott Spalding will join the season in progress.
"If we get to the final in football, those three will literally walk off the football field and start playing in the Irvine tournament," said Coach Tim Travers.