There's an all-around improvement in Century League basketball this season. But the most improved award won't go to a team or a player but a battle-- the battle for the league title.
It involves Santa Ana and Foothill high schools. Coaches say all other teams, though improved, can step aside and play for third.
The gap between the Saints and the Knights has narrowed since last season. This season, the teams share many similarities.
Santa Ana is the two-time defending champion. Foothill is the two-time runner-up. Both return three top starters.
The Saints are led by Bobby Joyce, a Times' All-County forward last season. Joyce, a 6-foot 7-inch senior, averaged 19.9 points and 15.1 rebounds last season. Seniors Leo Leon and Willie Lane each averaged more than eight points and six rebounds.
Foothill has more overall height this season. The Knights will look to Greg Rieber, a 6-5 all-league forward (14 points, 6 rebounds), and Bill Peckham (6-5) and Bill Mazurie (6-3).
Both teams also have plenty of capable players. Santa Ana is nine players deep, seven of those with varsity experience. Foothill brings up five players from last year's junior varsity team (24-2) that won the league title.
"I think it'll be very close," Foothill Coach Jim Reames said. "Things are so similar."
Both teams found there way to Basketball Nirvana last summer, helping them start the season with extra motivation.
For Foothill, heaven was seven wonderful summer league victories over top-notch teams: Corona del Mar, Lakewood, El Toro, Capistrano Valley, University, Long Beach Poly, and, ta-da , Mater Dei, the defending state and Southern Section 5-A champion.
The result? The Knights, 24-6 for the summer, start the season with great confidence.
For Santa Ana, it wasn't big games but big names-- does Patrick Ewing ring a bell?--that made the Saints' summer so swell.
It happened on Saints Across America, a nine-day trip through Washington, D.C., New York City and Springfield, Mass., during which Santa Ana received a private tour of the White House, the Basketball Hall of Fame and Georgetown University.
First stop at Georgetown was the gymnasium. Inside, Ewing and Eric (Sleepy) Floyd were playing one-on-one. John Thompson offered the Santa Ana players a 40-minute pep talk.
"It was a really incredible experience for our guys," said Saint Coach Greg Coombs. "It made a great big impression on them."
But do great big impressions spark great hoop sessions? It seemed to for Santa Ana, as it returned to Orange County and finished 23-3 in summer league play.
So, the Knights are ready to play. But the Saints may not be, at least in the early season. Four of Santa Ana's top seven play football and are involved in Southern Conference playoffs.
"But there's plenty of veterans, so we'll be able to come together pretty quickly," Coombs said.
One who should accelerate that motion is senior Scooti Lynwood, said to have been the county's best point guard at the start of last season.
Lynwood, all-league as a sophomore, was dropped from the team after two games last year for disciplinary reasons. Many say his return provides the Saints with a winning edge.
Whereas the battle for first place may be close, the chase for third seems wide open.
Three coaches--Jeff Bishop (Santa Ana Valley), Frank Palminteri (Villa Park) and Tim Tivenan (El Modena)--are in their second season, so the effects of last year's rebuilding season may begin to pay off.
Most of Canyon's best players from last season's team graduated. This year's team lacks height, and may be the only team that hasn't made obvious improvements from the 1986-87 season.
Here's a closer look at the league, with last season's records in parenthesis:
CANYON (12-12, 5-5)
Key personnel--Ralph Pacheco (6-0, guard), Dale LaRue (6-2, forward).
Top newcomers--Brian Bailey (5-10, guard), Jeff Ellis (6-4, center), Kevin Mahoney (5-10, guard).
Outlook--The Commanches lost David Jones, the county's 12th leading scorer at 20.1 points per game, and all-league forward Randy Simpson to graduation, and return only two players with varsity experience. They lack height, averaging 6-1. Though Ellis and Rodwick provide good inside shooting and rebounding, Canyon Coach Steve Sabins admits their jumping abilities are limited. Watch Bailey and Mahoney for outside shooting, and Pacheco for some outstanding defensive play. Compared to its third-place finish in the league last season, it may be a very tough year for Canyon.
EL MODENA (5-16, 4-6)
Key personnel--Brian Bullock (5-10, guard), Robbie Pietsch (6-4, center), Robert Stevens (6-4, forward), Ramsey Rycraw (6-2, guard).
Top newcomers--Dave Runnels (6-5, center), Nate Bogan (6-3, center), Jeff Leedum (6-2, forward), Russ Weitl (6-1, guard).