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Under Pressure

Boys' basketball: Woodbridge Coach John Halagan will be on the hot seat this season.

December 03, 1996|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is one county boys' basketball team that will be under tremendous pressure to win this season.

It has one of the county's--if not the nation's--best players, two other talented all-league returning starters, plus a transfer who was an all-league selection. Its bench is stocked with junior varsity players who are coming off a 19-6 season.

And, no, this team is not Mater Dei.

From the first tipoff to the final buzzer, Woodbridge will be watched like steak in a dog pound.

The number of victories won't matter much, but any loss will. The Warriors are expected to play their "A" game every time. Never mind that they have not won a league title outright since 1988. Never mind that Sea View League and Division II-A co-champion Santa Margarita will have another strong contender.

Never mind that Woodbridge doesn't open the season as the county's top-ranked team. That honor, again, goes to Mater Dei.

This is supposed to be Woodbridge's Southern Section championship season--signed, sealed and delivered. They have the county's leading scorer from last season in 6-foot-10 center Chris Burgess, who is headed to Duke. Other returning players include Brandon Beeson, who will attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and William Stovall, who has not picked a college. Transferring from Servite is Peter Martinelli, the true point guard Woodbridge supposedly has needed to advance deep into the playoffs.

So what if the Warriors' last section Division title (and state championship) was in 1987? And so what if they haven't gotten past Riverside North in the quarterfinals the last two seasons?

This is their time to walk the walk, because everyone around them will talk the talk.

No one knows this better than Woodbridge's coach, John Halagan. You will probably see him standing most of the season to avoid sitting on the hot seat.

Nonetheless, Halagan, starting his fifth year as head coach, said he is ready to meet the challenge head on.

"[Winning a title] is obviously going to be an issue with us this year," Halagan said. "But, quite frankly, I want high expectations placed on the program at Woodbridge. We've been in the playoffs 11 consecutive years, and we're coming off a [league] co-championship year. We've always been competitive, and there is no reason why we shouldn't continue to be.

"But should wanting to win a section title, which is certainly more attainable because of our talent level, make us put more pressure on the kids? No. If it's the last thing I do this year it's make sure we maintain a certain enjoyment level. The only pressure I will put on this group is to play as a team and play our tails off. If we fall short in those areas, that's when they're going to hear it from me."

Halagan has a notion of what could be in store for him and his team. He was an assistant at Woodbridge in 1987 and '88, when Adam Keefe was the star. In 1987 Woodbridge beat Banning in overtime for the section Division II-A title, and then defeated Richmond De Anza for the Division II state championship. In 1988, Woodbridge, then a member of the Pacific Coast League, won its last league championship.

Keefe, who was named the II-A player of the year in 1988, went on to play at Stanford and is now with the Utah Jazz.

"The whole year [1987-88] was a whirlwind," Halagan said. "I was an assistant at that time and I think this year will be similar.

"I've had a lot of people come up and say 'I bet you're glad the recruiting is over.' But as I remember [the attention] never ended. The recruiting was just another step; everybody wants to do the follow-up story. USA Today has done something and so has Sports Illustrated. It will never end.

"But I'd rather have to deal with the distractions. The best way is to meet them head on. You have to deal with it to the extent that you can't let it interfere with what you're trying to accomplish."

No coach understands what Halagan will be going through better than Mater Dei's Gary McKnight, whose Monarch teams have won six consecutive section titles and will be favored to win again.

The playing talent involved during this remarkable run has included Reggie Geary, Miles Simon, Shaun Jackson, Schea Cotton and Kevin Augustine.

McKnight doesn't worry about the down season the Monarchs will inevitably suffer, but he knows the fans of Mater Dei basketball, who consider anything less than a state championship an unsuccessful season, may not be so forgiving.

"Our expectations might be different than others," McKnight said, "but I think it's a shame when you win league and people think it's not important. I don't think people stop to enjoy the moment enough. I say preseason is to prepare for league and playoffs. Winning league is the first priority, the [section title] second and the state is 'See how far you can go.' "

In 1984 Steve Keith guided Glendale to an undefeated season and the section IV-A championship. Keith did not have a superstar like Burgess, but he did have four standout seniors and was expected to win.

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