Once again, the talk this week is about a possible matchup of Crenshaw and Santa Ana Mater Dei in the boys' CIF Southern Regional basketball tournament Saturday night at Anaheim Arena.
The schools have won more games than any others the last 10 years, with six State titles between them. This will not be the first meeting between the teams and certainly not the last.
Crenshaw defeated Mater Dei on a buzzer-beater in the regional final last year, 63-61. In their previous meeting, the regional final in 1986, Crenshaw won an overtime thriller, 59-57.
Settling those old scores may be a motivating factor for Mater Dei, which begins the regional as the top-seeded team in Division I. It is 31-0 and ranked No. 1 in the Southland by The Times, No. 2 in the state by Cal-Hi and No. 2 in the nation by USA Today.
Crenshaw, seeded second, is 25-2, having lost only to nationally ranked teams during a holiday tournament in South Carolina. The Cougars are No. 2 in the Southland, No. 1 in the state and No. 5 in the nation.
The rankings make this year's possible matchup the most attractive ever. Officials at the CIF are warning fans to buys tickets early, since they will probably be scarce by the end of the week. A capacity crowd of 17,000 would set a state record.
If the schools survive the first two rounds of the regional tournament, which begins tonight and continues Thursday, the buildup for the championship will be immense.
Is the attention justified?
Certainly there will be plenty of talent on the court worth watching. Mater Dei is young and deep, with senior guard Miles Simon leading the way. Simon signed with Arizona last November.
Crenshaw counters with a squad resembling that of an all-star team. Three of its starters, Kristaan Johnson, Tremaine Fowlkes, and Tommie Davis, have already received scholarships--to UCLA, Cal and Houston, respectively. The Cougars have a deep bench as well, helping the team average an impressive 100.8 points this season.
The teams, however, are not made up of neighborhood kids who grew up in the community, dreaming of playing for the school. Instead, they reflect the changing priorities of high school sports.
Mater Dei is a Catholic school drawing primarily from Orange County. Many of its players are friends from summer all-star teams who want to stay together. Others are drawn by the success of the program. Coach Gary McKnight has won nine section titles since he took over 12 years ago.
Mater Dei has an advantage over public schools in that it does not have to abide by attendance boundaries.
That made it easy for Schea Cotton, the Monarchs' starting guard, when he decided to transfer from Bellflower St. John Bosco three weeks into this season. To gain eligibility, the Cotton family only had to change residences, not move to Santa Ana.
Cotton, a highly touted freshman, has played a key role in the team's success. He scored 25 points in the Monarchs' victory over Huntington Beach Edison in the Southern Section Division I-A championship Saturday.
His transfer, however, outraged many, who said it was a case of the rich getting richer.
Although Crenshaw is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District and must abide by attendance boundaries, the Cougars also are built primarily on transfers. Johnson is from Van Nuys Montclair Prep, Fowlkes from Culver City, Davis from Fremont, Reggie McFerren from Gardena Serra and Ronnie Arch from Westchester. And there are others.
The circumstances vary in each case. Davis, for example, was supposed to attend Locke but received a special permit to go to Fremont. Last summer, he got into trouble at Fremont and got a special permit to move on to Crenshaw.
Neither Mater Dei nor Crenshaw has been punished for any wrongdoing in obtaining transfer players, and administrators and coaches at both schools maintain that their programs are clean. Section officials acknowledge, however, that it is difficult for them to monitor everything. Most policing, they say, is up to the individual schools.
Mater Dei and Crenshaw continue to win, and winning programs attract quality athletes. What all this teaches the players is uncertain, but it probably is not the values high school sports are supposed to be about. Sportsmanship, winning and losing, responsibility and respect have taken a back seat to championships and manipulation.
If the teams meet as expected Saturday night, the winner will probably go on to take the State title. The loser will feel as if the whole season was a waste, since many of the players chose their schools with the idea of taking home first-place trophies.
And there is something terribly wrong with that scenario.