It's easy to see why an opposing coach once dubbed Tustin High School forward Rog Middleton "the Marvin Hagler of high school basketball."
One look at Middleton and you realize this is no ordinary high school athlete. A shaved head and menacing scowl make him intimidating.
On the court, Middleton is a muscular 200-pound heavyweight. He has a soft jump shot with a 17-foot range. But his knockout punch is his ability to drive inside for high-percentage shots.
Middleton, a 6-foot 4-inch senior, is among the county's leading scorers (22.8 average) and rebounders (10.8 average). He holds the school's single-game scoring record of 45 points, which he has reached once last season and once this season.
With Middleton in the lineup, Tustin is 15-3 and on the way to its best season since the Tillers advanced to the Southern Section's 3-A division final in 1981.
Though he has had offers, Middleton has yet to sign with a college. He had a chance last November when Utah State and UC Irvine made scholarship offers.
But he rejected the offers during the one-week early signing period, electing to wait until after his senior season to make a decision.
Some scouts doubt whether Middleton can make the transition to the college game. Middleton has been criticized for his inability to shoot, that he relies too much on an inside game. Some doubt that a 6-4 forward can make it in college.
Middleton said he worked on his outside shooting during the offseason.
"I think I've proved I can hit the outside shot consistently from 17 feet this year," Middleton said. "In our first game with Foothill, I hit seven or eight outside jump shots."
There was a time when Middleton had difficulty scoring, period. He was a 5-8 guard on the Tillers' freshman team who lost his starting spot after taking time off during Christmas vacation to visit his grandmother.
He became a starter on the Tillers' junior varsity team as a sophomore, but realized that his game needed polish if he hoped to become a force on the varsity team as a junior. Middleton decided to enroll in UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan's summer basketball camp before his junior year, and he said the skills he learned turned his game around.
Middleton met Mike Bokosky, UC Irvine assistant, at the Tustin Boys' Club, where he and former UCI star Kevin Magee held a clinic. Middleton, then a freshman, had decided to end a promising soccer career to concentrate on basketball.
The scheduled date of the clinic also was the night the Lakers were playing the Boston Celtics in the seventh game for the National Basketball Assn. championship. Bokosky admitted that he wanted to stay home to watch the game but felt obligated to the kids at the club.
"Kevin and I got to the club and there were only five kids who had showed up," Bokosky said. "So instead of doing a basketball clinic, I had Kevin talk to the kids about life. He talked mostly about the benefits of being a nice guy versus being a jerk."
Middleton was enrolled with players from Mater Dei, St. Bernard and Corona del Mar high schools who played basketball from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. He improved dramatically.
"Rog was like a sponge," Bokosky said. "He took in everything we taught him. It wasn't that we taught him anything special. I think he was at a time in his life when he decided he was going to dedicate himself to basketball.
"At that moment, he was physically and mentally ready to learn and play the game. Today, Rog is a big-time athlete. He can run and jump with the best of them. I like his all-around game. We'd love to have him because he's going to get better and better."
Mulligan has continued to pursue Middleton.
"I like him," Mulligan said. "He plays hard, he's a good athlete and above everything else he's a nice kid. I've heard the rap about his shooting, but I saw the game against Foothill, and believe me, he can shoot."