A funny thing happened to the Crenshaw High boys' basketball team last season on its way to the City final.
The Cougars lost.
They were beaten in the semifinals by Cleveland, 87-75.
It was only the fourth time in the last 17 seasons that Crenshaw, under Coach Willie West, failed to make the City final.
In that time, Crenshaw has won nine titles, been runner-up four times and reached the semifinals three times. The one season the Cougars didn't make it to at least the semifinals, in 1972, they were 14-0 before having to forfeit all their games for using an ineligible player.
Although Crenshaw stumbled last season, however, the Cougars have an abundance of talent again this time around. Not only are they favored to win the City title, they have the potential to dominate teams.
Even so, West is cautious, remembering last season.
"We can't just rely on one player like we did last season," West said, in an apparent reference to guard John Staggers, who averaged more than 26 points a game. If West wants to get more people involved, though, he certainly has the players to call upon.
Staggers, a 6-4 guard with almost unlimited shooting range, is back, along with starters, Cornelius Holden, a 6-7 forward, and Charlie Hill, a 6-2 guard.
In addition, there are 6-7 center-forward Doug Meekins, who was on the varsity team two years ago but sat out last season with academic problems; 6-3 transfer David Hollaway, who started at Westchester High last season; 6-1 guard Damon Hill and 6-6 forward Ronnie Winbush, who despite never having played a varsity game, has signed a national letter of intent with Cal State Long Beach. Meekins also signed early, with Washington.
Two other players expected to play are 6-2 junior guard Donald Smith and 6-6 forward Julius Ward.
Meanwhile, Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight has been putting together his own mini-dynasty in the Southern Section.
Over the last five seasons, McKnight has guided the Monarchs to five Southern Section finals, losing only once, in 1984, to Long Beach Poly in a 45-44 overtime game.
If Mater Dei is to reach the Southern Section final for a sixth straight season, though, the Monarchs figure to do it in a much different way than they have in the past.
Mater Dei has usually had a dominant big man--sometimes two of them--to build its power game around. In the last five seasons, the Monarchs have had three Southern Section players of the year--6-6 Matt Beeuwsaert in 1983, 6-7 Tom Lewis in 1985, and 6-11 LeRon Ellis in 1987.
This season, while not lacking in height, the Monarchs do not appear to have one or two players capable of dominating a game and probably will have to rely on more of a team effort.
Returning for Mater Dei are starters Mike Hopkins, a 6-4 guard who missed the last 13 games of the season with a broken foot but was still signed by Syracuse; 6-5 forward Kevin Rembert, a two-year starter who has signed with San Diego State, and 6-6 forward Char Ruppel.
Mark Ramstack, a 6-2 senior, figured to be one of the starting guards but he is banged up from football. Dylan Rigdon and Troy Roelen will fill in at guard for Ramstack until he has recovered. Rembert is also slowed by football injuries, and will be replaced in the early going by 6-7 sophomore Derrick Stone.
Despite the talent at both Crenshaw and Mater Dei, neither school figures to breeze this season.
In the City, Reseda Cleveland, Fairfax, Manual Arts and Westchester all have the ability to play with Crenshaw.
Cleveland should be especially strong this season, since four of five starters return from last season's successful team. Mike Gray, who made 8 of 9 shots in losing to Fairfax in the City final, and Damon Greer are back at the guard spots, and Damon Charlott and Richard Branham are returning at forward. Also back is guard Joey Manliguis, who was a starter last season before being declared scholastically ineligible.
Despite the departure of forward Sean Higgins for the University of Michigan, defending 4-A champion Fairfax will still be a force.
Two-year starter Chris Mills, a 6-6 forward who has signed with Kentucky and is considered the best high school senior in the western United States, returns after averaging 26 points and 15 rebounds as a junior.
Although Westchester's Hollaway transferred to Crenshaw, the Comets welcome back 6-6 junior forward Zan Mason and 6-5 senior guard Michael Brown.
In the Southern Section, Mater Dei will have to concentrate on winning a league title before it can worry about defending its 5-A title.
The Angelus League, never previously noted for it depth, just may be the toughest league in the Southern Section this season.
"I don't expect any team to go through the league undefeated," said McKnight, whose Monarchs have a 52-game league winning streak.