Who is the best basketball team in Orange County? Santa Ana High School, at least for the time being.
The Saints have earned that ranking, rolling to 10 straight wins without a loss. They've also won championships at the Santa Ana Elks and Irvine World News tournaments.
Santa Ana was ranked second behind Marina in the first Orange County Sportswriters' Assn. poll, but should move into the top spot this week. Marina was upset by Estancia, 63-62, in the second round at Irvine.
A week earlier, Mater Dei, the consensus choice as the county's top team in most preseason polls, lost two straight games in the Beverly Hills tournament and was ranked third in the first poll.
Most coaches expect that the poll will have more changes. Parity seems the order of the season.
"I think there are 15 to 20 teams that could beat anybody in the county on a given night, including us if we're not careful," said Greg Coombs, Santa Ana coach. "There were eight or nine teams in the Irvine World News tournament that could have won the championship.
"Estancia wasn't highly regarded going into the tournament, and they beat Marina in the second round. An upset like that could happen every week this season."
Bill Shannon, who led Woodbridge to the state Division II title last year, has noticed a significant change this season.
"Last year, you could point to Mater Dei, Marina and Woodbridge as dominant teams with Division I players," Shannon said. "Mater Dei had LeRon Ellis. Marina had Mark Georgeson. We had Adam Keefe and Vince Bryan.
"This year, there are some good individuals like Adam Keefe and Bobby Joyce, but no team has an immense talent. Nobody jumps out in this area. Santa Ana is a very good team with very good athletes who have been playing together for several years.
"But I look at Saddleback and start wondering if they could beat Santa Ana. Could Marina or Capistrano Valley beat Santa Ana? Anything is possible this year."
Steve White, coach at Sunny Hills (6-1), isn't sure which is the county's best team.
"I think we're the best team in the north county," White said. "We don't have an outstanding player, but we have more depth than most teams.
"I've seen some good high school teams, but there isn't one dominating team or one dominating player. I saw Santa Ana, and they looked pretty good. They have a legitimate college player (Bobby Joyce) and a whole bunch of athletes who like playing together."
Coombs thinks little has changed since last season . . . with one notable exception.
"LeRon Ellis graduated," he said. "You would have had the same parity last year if Mater Dei didn't have LeRon. We played them in the Orange tournament without Bobby Joyce and were in the game until LeRon took over in the last quarter."
The Giant Awakens: Jim Waikle, 7-foot senior center at Capistrano Valley, gave some indication in two Irvine World News games of his potential.
Waikle, deemed a project throughout this career, scored 19 points, had 16 rebounds and blocked 6 shots against Paramount, then blocked 8 shots and had 9 rebounds with 6 points against Saddleback.
"He could be the No. 1 player in the nation after two years at a junior college," Coombs said. "The worst thing that could happen to him is to go to a four-year college and sit. He needs to play.
"He's improved, but he's got a lot of work ahead of him. But it wouldn't surprise me if he's playing in the NBA someday."
A Change of Scenery: It hasn't been officially announced, but look for the Tournament of Champions to move from Cal Poly Pomona to Ocean View High School next season.
The tournament, long recognized as the best in Southern California, has hit hard times the past two years with perennial powers Crenshaw and Mater Dei declining to play and accepting invitations for all-expenses-paid trips to out-of-state tournaments.
Bob Espinosa, athletic director at San Dimas High, has been the tournament's director since its inception but said he has been instructed by his principal to concentrate on organizing San Dimas' tournament, which features teams in the Pomona valley area and is held a week before the Tournament of Champions.
Espinosa and Jim Harris, Ocean View coach, are former teammates and friends from Cal State Long Beach. Espinosa approached Harris with the idea of hosting the tournament next season.
Ready for the Big Time: El Toro's basketball team had a fine showing in the Tournament of Champions, losing to city power Westchester, 74-72, in the championship game.
The Chargers were trying to become only the second county school since Mater Dei to win the prestigious tournament.
Despite the loss, Bret Johnson and Eric Speaker were named to the all-tournament's first-team and Cory Wayland and Khari Johnson were named to the second team. Bret Johnson and Wayland had only one day of practice before the tournament after a successful football season.