The specter of a bitter loss a year ago follows the Whittier Christian High School boys basketball team on the eve of the CIF Southern Section playoffs.
Defending 1-A champion Crossroads High of Santa Monica (19-5), which dealt favored Whittier Christian last year's loss in the division's title game, hauntingly climbed up the 1-A polls after a slow start in December and finished the regular season in the No. 2 spot behind Whittier Christian.
The situation is much the same as it was a year ago, when top-rated Whittier Christian saw its 25-game winning streak ended, 70-61, by Crossroads in the championship game. Crossroads went on to finish second in the state's Division III.
"I wish I had that game back," said Whittier Christian Coach Bill Cuccia said. "Our kids want to play Crossroads. I don't know if you'd call it a vendetta but . . . ."
23-Game Win Streak
This year, Whittier Christian (23-1) has won 23 straight games.
The teams have been designated the top seeds in the postseason tournament, which means they could only meet in the championship final. Each would have to win three games to get there under the single-elimination format. Both teams await the conclusion of this week's wild card games to determine who they will host in Friday's first round.
"All year we played like the preseason and league games were a nuisance," Cuccia said. "We just wanted to . . . get on to the playoffs."
Cuccia thinks there will be a rematch and he is preparing for it. He has scouted the Roadrunners a lot lately and calls Crossroads "the team to beat." Cuccia has installed plays in practice that are specifically designed to be used against Crossroads. During the playoffs he plans to experiment with them.
Neither team is a stranger to postseason play, which makes an upset in the first few rounds unlikely. Whittier Christian has advanced twice to the final and quarterfinal rounds in seven consecutive postseason appearances. Cuccia has a 151-24 record over the past seven seasons.
Crossroads was the 1-A runner-up in 1985.
Defense Has a Weakness
Cuccia indicated that if the Heralds lose in an early round it will be because of defensive, not offensive, weakness.
"I found out last year that staying out of foul trouble is also important in the playoffs," he said.
Four players are scoring in double figures for Whittier Christian. Junior forward Eric Martin (6-foot-4) leads the team with an average of 21.6 points a game, followed by his junior brother, Chris, a 6-foot-2 guard at 15.6. Senior swingman Mike Goodcase (6-foot-2), a Times All-Southeast performer last season, averages 15 points a game and forward Chris Syke, an 85% free throw shooter, averages 10.
Goodcase has been a key element in the team's success the past two seasons. Cuccia calls him "a well-rounded player."
"We hope to get him the ball more. We want him to score 20 points a game in the playoffs," he said.
Here is a look at other key area first-round games. Boys games will be played Friday. Girls games will be Saturday. All begin at 7:30 p.m.
BOYS GAMES St. Anthony (15-10) at Wilson (18-7)--The Long Beach schools both finished second in their respective Big Five leagues. St. Anthony plays in the Camino Real League and Wilson is a charter member of the Moore League. Wilson won its last five league games, including a 47-45 win over league champion and Big Five No. 2 seed Millikan. All-South Coast Player of the Year Don Brotz returns to lead the Bruins. St. Anthony is led by 6-foot junior guard Darrick Martin, the city's leading scorer at 30 points a game.
Pius X (17-7) vs. Lakewood (17-7) at Dominguez High--Led by All-Southeast forward Anthony Jenkins Pius X made good on a preseason prediction by Coach Mike Murphy. Murphy predicted Jenkins would lead the Warriors to the league title. He did, in the process averaging 23.5 points and seven rebounds a game. Lakewood guard Duane Cooper averaged 19.5 points a game. Milton Robinson, a 6-foot-5 center who averages eight rebounds a game, will be charged with battling the 6-foot-5 Jenkins. The Big Five game has been moved from Pius X because Southern Section officials felt the Warriors' 800-seat gym was too small to host a playoff game.
GIRLS GAMES Downey (16-8) at Lakewood (18-8)--Lakewood has lived in the shadow of fifth-rated Compton all year in the Moore League race. Now the second-place Lancers hope to strut their stuff in the 4-A playoffs. Leading the team is guard Vonda Anderson, who is averaging 23 points and 5 assists a game. Downey starts four sophomores and was a surprise runner-up to top-rated Lynwood in the San Gabriel Valley League. Viking Coach Dean Ackland has announced he will resign after the playoffs.