Coach Jim McClune remembers the disappointment last season when St. Bernard High missed the CIF basketball playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
"I didn't go to any playoff games," he recalled. "For about two or three weeks, I hated basketball."
But breaking up is hard to do, and McClune and basketball have gotten together again. The reconciliation was easy, considering that St. Bernard returns four starters, one of them the tallest player in school history.
After exiting last year on a low note, the Vikings open the season Tuesday as the top seed in the Pacific Shores Tournament and the No. 1-ranked team in the South Bay, based on a Times poll of area coaches.
McClune says missing the playoffs may have been a blessing in disguise for St. Bernard, traditionally one of Southern California's prep powers.
"When you're ranked every year and playing in the Sports Arena every other year, sometimes it's hard to get the players hungry," he said. "Now, it's much easier to get their attention.
"We're practicing a lot harder than we did last year. It could be maturity. I know I'm much more demanding this year. I notice a change in myself."
Although he is confident St. Bernard will be improved, McClune knows better than to judge a team based on off-season performances.
Reacting to the area's top ranking, he said: "To take it too seriously would be a mistake. It's highly speculative to think we're going to be strong based on what we did in the summer."
St. Bernard split with Westchester and Carson, the area's No. 2- and No. 3-rated teams, in summer league games. That would seem to indicate there is a fine line separating the elite.
Other teams expected to have big seasons include Inglewood, Palos Verdes, Serra and Morningside.
Of course, at this stage everything is speculation. A true reading of basketball strength in the South Bay will unfold next week in the 16-team Pacific Shores Tournament, played at Redondo and Mira Costa.
Here's a look at the top 10 teams in the area. Last year's record and league finish are in parentheses:
1. St. Bernard (13-12, fifth in Angelus League)--The Vikings return eight of 14 lettermen, although they will miss the 25-point scoring average of Georgia Tech recruit David Whitmore. St. Bernard's hopes are riding on 6-foot-10 junior Ed Stokes, who has grown two inches and strengthened his game since last year.
"He can be the best player we've ever had," McClune said. "He might be our best three-point shooter."
Lower-back pain forced Stokes to miss several early practices, but he worked out Monday and apparently is on the road to recovery.
Senior Eric Nelson and junior Juno Armstrong, a pair of 6-4 forwards, add to the team's front-line strength. Nelson, an All-Angelus League wide receiver in football, averaged 13 points a game last season.
Point guard Keith Brown rounds out the returning starters. The fifth spot will be filled by either 6-0 Aron Williams or 6-6 Damon Woodruff.
2. Westchester (13-9, tied for third in Central League)--Coach Ed Azzam says this could be the finest team in Westchester history. The Comets return three starters, led by 6-7 junior forward Zan Mason and 6-6 senior swing man Michael Brown. Mason averaged 19 points a game last season on his way to All-L. A. City honors. Brown, a fine all-around player, signed early with Cal State Fullerton. The other returner is flashy point guard Sam Crawford, a 5-9 junior.
Azzam, who admits the team was not disciplined enough last year, hopes to tighten the reins on his players. "It was the first year I had all that talent," he said. "To be honest, I just didn't know how to handle it."
Westchester lost perhaps its best athlete when guard David Hollaway transferred to Crenshaw. He will be replaced in the lineup by 6-5 senior Scott Crawford.
The Comets open against Hamilton in a non-league game Wednesday.
3. Carson (14-10, second in Marine League)--The Colts got off to a bad start last month when point guards Darryl Bennett and Odis Smith both suffered broken ankles in the same practice. Coach Rich Masson hopes to have them back soon.
Until then, Carson will survive with one of the area's most athletically talented teams. Forwards Rodney Bowen and Stephen Smith, two 6-4 seniors, are the only returning players. Leading the list of newcomers is 6-1 junior Greg Lindsey, who averaged 16 points per game for the league champion junior varsity team and was named MVP of Carson's summer tournament.
Masson says the Colts must overcome inexperience and a lack of size. "With maturity, we could compete for a league title," he said.
4. Palos Verdes (20-7, second in Bay League)--John Mihaljevich, the dean of South Bay coaches, is back for his 21st year at Palos Verdes with an all-senior club. The Sea Kings return three starters from last season's team that reached the CIF 3-A semifinals--6-4 forward Jeff Whitley, 6-3 swing man Mike Matteoni and 5-9 point guard John Mika.