After three quarters of play at Simi Valley High on Friday night, it was hard to tell which team was the defending Marmonte League champion and which had finished last a year ago.
But thanks to Simi Valley forward Shawn DeLaittre, who scored a game-high 26 points, and center Don MacLean, who had 20, the Pioneers showed that there is no easy stop off the Simi Valley Freeway on the road to the Marmonte League title.
Fighting off a much-improved and inspired Newbury Park team, Simi Valley (13-1) scored 33 fourth-quarter points and defeated the Panthers, 86-65, in the league opener for both teams.
"We played well for three quarters," Newbury Park Coach Ken Barone said. "But they put it in second gear and we sort of ran out of gas."
The Panthers (5-7) didn't just play well. They out-hustled the much bigger Pioneers in the first half and took a 34-33 lead at intermission.
Senior guard Shawn Jeffers hit 5 of 6 shots in the second quarter, including a layup at the buzzer after stealing a pass from Simi Valley's Travis Bice. It was the first lead for Newbury Park, which fell behind, 21-8, in the first quarter.
"They shot the ball extremely well," Simi Valley Coach Bob Hawking said. "I don't know what percentage it was, but it was probably well over 60%."
Newbury Park made 12 of 15 shots in the first half and Hawking pointed out a few things to the defending league champs at halftime.
"I told them that we're going to have to go out and guard some people and tighten up the defense a little," Hawking said.
Hawking watched his team snatch the lead back with a 12-point run in the third quarter. DeLaittre scored eight points, six in a row, and MacLean added four.
In the final quarter, trailing 55-48, it was Newbury Park's turn to worry about guarding people.
Jeffers finished with 20 points to lead Newbury Park but cooled somewhat and DeLaittre got hotter, hitting his last six shots. Guard Butch Hawking scored 18 points, 16 in the second half, to contribute to the rout.
The Pioneers opened up an insurmountable 20-point lead with four minutes to play.
"They're a good team. You have to give them credit," Barone said. "I don't know if they're as good as they were last year, but time will tell."
"It's going to be tough," DeLaittre said about the Pioneers' quest for a second straight league title. "It's a good league with a lot of good players. I knew they'd play good tonight, but I didn't know how good they'd be."
Hawking agreed that Newbury Park, which won only two league games last season, has improved.
"That was last year," he said. "This year is a whole new ballgame."