When Bob Sorensen became coach of the San Gabriel High boys basketball team last season, the program was in despair.
In three years the Matadors had won only 3 of 62 games.
Things improved a little last season when San Gabriel posted a 6-17 record, and the Matadors have improved dramatically this season.
The Matadors, one of several San Gabriel Valley teams having surprising success this season, have bolted to a 12-2 record entering their Foothill League opener against Hart at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Newhall.
Sorensen was hopeful about his team's prospects after last year.
"Our record didn't really reflect how close we were last year," Sorensen said. "We lost a lot of games by close scores. This year we're winning those games."
The coach's hopes were also boosted by his team's 14-0 record during summer league play. "I think the kids have gotten used to winning," Sorensen said.
San Gabriel's success is even more impressive in light of the fact that the Matadors have only one starter taller than 6-0. Senior center Andy Bojarski is 6-5 and not a run-of-the-mill player.
Bojarski, all-league last year, is averaging 24.4 points although he's often double- and triple-teamed.
Other key players are 5-11 forward Ruben Zuniga, 5-10 guard Mike Roland and 6-0 point guard Dale Vandenburgh. All are seniors.
If San Gabriel is the most surprising team in the valley, Bishop Amat is not far behind.
With a new coach and only three players from a team that was 9-14 last year, the Lancers did not have the makings of a powerhouse at the start of the season.
But under first-year Coach Alex Acosta, the Lancers have completed non-league play with a 12-4 record.
Bishop Amat's success is not a complete surprise to Acosta, assistant coach of the Lancers the last three years.
"I knew when I took the job that we had some talent here," Acosta said. "It was just a question of taking our talent and putting it together as a team."
Still, Acosta admits he did not expect his team's non-league success, which included a 72-71 victory over defending CIF 4-A Division champion Muir in the Covina tournament.
"We're doing a lot better than I projected at this time," Acosta said. "I knew we were talented but we also were inexperienced, and I didn't know how they would react."
Acosta was concerned at the start of the season because he had 10 newcomers, most from a successful junior varsity team.
The concern was unwarranted. The Lancers have succeeded although six of their top eight players are juniors.
The leaders are 6-8 senior center Pat Chylinski and 6-7 junior forward Geoff Lear, who have combined to give the Lancers one of their tallest teams ever. Lear is averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds and Chylinski 10 points and 8 rebounds. "Both have just improved a lot," Acosta said. "They seem to get better every game."
Other key players are junior guards Stephon Pace (6-1) and twins Clarence and Terrance Lamb (both 5-11).
Acosta said the turning point for his team was the one-point win over Muir in the quarterfinals of the Covina tournament. "We lost a couple of close games early on and I thought that if we won a close game it would turn things around, and we beat a good Muir team and really took off," he recalled.
Both Acosta and Sorensen are elated with their success but realize their fortunes could change once league play starts this week.
Sorensen said his team is hoping to stay competitive in the Foothill League, which has been led by Hart, Schurr and Burbank in recent years. "We'll be competitive, but as good as we were in the preseason, our league is tougher," he said.
Acosta is well aware of the strength of the Angelus League, which includes defending 5-A champion Mater Dei, St. Bernard and Servite. Bishop Amat, which finished last in the league last year, visits Servite in its opener at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
"We have to start all over again," Acosta said. "It's a little different playing in the Angelus League instead of at home or in the Covina tournament."
Among the other valley teams, two surprises could be Diamond Bar and Bosco Tech.
Considering that Diamond Bar has most of its top players returning from a team that finished with a 13-10 record last year, the Brahmas were expected to have a good year.
However, Coach Bill Murray probably did not expect to have a 14-2 record heading into the Sierra League opener Friday night against Los Altos.
History also did not favor the Brahmas, who have not made the playoffs or won more than 13 games in their first four years of varsity competition.
On the other hand, this year's team is probably Diamond Bar's tallest and most talented. The Brahmas certainly have the tallest front line in the valley with 6-9 senior center Pat McMann, 6-7 junior forward Brian Hendrick and 6-5 senior forward Bill Miller.
Hendrick is Diamond Bar's leading scorer with a 19.3 average and McMann is averaging 15.9. Diamond Bar is also strong at guard with juniors Joey Madott (6-2) and Mike Schumacher (5-10).
While Diamond Bar's success may not be surprising, the same cannot be said for Bosco Tech.
Not that the Techmen are short on talent, but Bosco Tech struggled to an 8-17 record--one of its worst ever--last season.
Considering that five of his top six players were returning, Coach Jorge Calienes expected improvement, but the Techmen may have surpassed his early expectations by going 13-3 overall and 2-0 in the Del Rey League going into Friday's game against St. Francis.
The leaders have been senior guards Dustin Palma (5-10) and Tom Takeshita (5-10), both strong outside shooters, and 6-7 junior forward Carlos Carrillo. Palma leads in scoring with a 15.0 average.