This is the season when Mater Dei High School of Santa Ana is, for a change, part of the pack in Southern Section boys' basketball, when 12 teams in the 4-A division have 20 wins, and 3 others have 19. This is the season when the chase for titles in the two highest divisions is the most open in years, with, it seems, everyone in the running in the 5-A.
When the playoff pairings were announced Sunday, only one defending champion, Woodbridge of Irvine, qualified as a seeded team. The Warriors are third-seeded in the 2-A. The top spots went to Bishop Amat of La Puente in the 5-A, Simi Valley in the 4-A, Saddleback of Santa Ana in the 3-A, Banning (25-0) in the 2-A, St. Bonaventure of Ventura in the 1-A and Oakwood of North Hollywood in the Small Schools.
"Here we are a third-place team, and we have a shot at the final four," said Jim McClune, who is making his fifth playoff appearance in six years at St. Bernard of Playa del Rey. "St. Paul is a fourth-place team, and they have a good chance at getting to the final four. I don't know who doesn't have a chance."
Four teams from the strong Angelus League--Bishop Amat, Mater Dei of Santa Ana, St. Bernard and high-scoring St. Paul of Santa Fe Springs--are contenders in the 5-A. So is No. 4 Ocean View of Huntington Beach. And No. 2 Millikan of Long Beach. And No. 3 St. Anthony of Long Beach. And Marina of Huntington Beach.
In other words: Pick a winner, any winner.
"The parity is definitely there," said Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight, looking for his fourth straight championship and fifth in the last six years. "But if Bishop Amat continues to play as well as they did against us, I favor them to go right through it. They have all the ingredients."
In the 4-A, Simi Valley, No. 1 in The Times' Southern Section rankings, is a clear favorite to win, but filling the three other semifinalists is as tricky as the 5-A. In order, the other seeded teams are Glendora, at 26-0 one of only two undefeated teams in the Southern Section, Capistrano Valley of Mission Viejo and Santa Ana.
The seeded teams, in order, in the other divisions:
--3-A: Saddleback of Santa Ana, Sunny Hills of Fullerton, Tustin and Rolling Hills.
--2-A: Banning, San Bernardino, Woodbridge and Duarte.
--1-A: St. Bonaventure, Beaumont, Whittier Christian of La Habra and Brentwood.
--Small Schools: Oakwood, Hesperia Christian, Cate and Woodcrest Christian.
The playoffs begin with wild-card games in each division Wednesday. The 5-A has its first-round games Thursday, and the other division first-round games are Friday.
Pairings for girls' basketball and boys' and girls' soccer will be announced today.