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Class of 1996-97 Lived Up to Its Billing

March 27, 1997|ERIC SHEPARD

It was lauded as one of the most talented senior classes in Southern California boys' basketball history, and with the season just concluded, the assessment is favorable.

High school fans got their money's worth the last four months watching such potential top college players as Chris Burgess of Irvine Woodbridge, Jason and Jarron Collins of North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake and Baron Davis of Santa Monica Crossroads, among others.

Each met or exceeded expectations in leading their teams to Southern Section divisional titles. Harvard-Westlake and Crossroads also went on to win state crowns.

Burgess, a 6-foot-10 center who signed with Duke in November, averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots in leading Woodbridge to its best finish, at 28-4, including the Southern Section Division II-AA title.

The Collins twins, each 6-10, led Harvard-Westlake to a 35-1 record. The Wolverines also easily won their second consecutive state Division III title. Jason broke the Southern Section record for rebounds in a career, finishing with 1,500. They both signed early with Stanford.

And Davis emerged as the premier point guard in the country, averaging 24 points, even though he rarely played all four quarters because of lopsided victories. The 6-1 senior, who is involved in a major recruiting battle involving UCLA, among others, was the key in the Roadrunners' winning the state Division IV title, their first since 1987.

There were other notable performers, as well. Juniors Jason Thomas and Tayshaun Prince proved they will be among the top recruits next season in leading Compton Dominguez to its second state Division II title in a row. USC-bound point guard Kevin Augustine helped Santa Ana Mater Dei to its sixth consecutive Southern Section Division I-A championship. And Kevin Bradley, another senior point guard, was at the top of his game in leading Crenshaw to impressive come-from-behind victories over Mater Dei and Alameda St. Joseph in the state tournament.

The biggest disappointment was Schea Cotton of Bellflower St. John Bosco, who sat out his senior season to heal an injured shoulder and concentrate on academics. Cotton, a 6-5 guard/forward, led Mater Dei to a state Division I title in 1995 before transferring to St. John Bosco the next season. He signed with Long Beach State in November but hasn't met NCAA academic entrance requirements and is reportedly interested in being released from his letter of intent.


The biggest complaint regarding the boys' basketball season is that there was little room at the top for newcomers.

Harvard-Westlake, which finished the season rated No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and in the Southland by The Times after impressive outings at holiday tournaments in Las Vegas and Long Beach, won its third consecutive sectional title and second consecutive state title.

Dominguez dominated Division II for the second year in a row, and Crenshaw won its fifth City Section Division 4-A title in a row and fourth state Division I title in the past five years.

Most of the top programs have benefited from open enrollment, which has allowed the best players to more easily transfer from one school to another.

Another factor is that coaches of top teams aren't exercising their right to move up in divisions. Division placement is decided by a school's enrollment, but a team can move up to a higher division if it so desires.

Dominguez Coach Russell Otis said he was encouraged by many fans to move up to Division I so his team could compete against the likes of Crenshaw and Mater Dei for supremacy in the Southern California. He refused.

"We were going to move up before the season started, but we figured we'd stay in Division II so both Crenshaw and us would have a chance to win a state championship," Otis said.

The difficulty of different schools winning titles has hurt interest, however. Attendance figures at section and state finals weren't impressive.

Last weekend's state finals at the Pond of Anaheim drew a combined two-day crowd of 18,452, well below the average of 20,234 for the previous seven years. CIF officials aren't sure whether the event will return to the Pond.

"We'll have to wait for all the final figures since many of those in attendance received 'comped' tickets," said Ray Bell, a member of the state basketball advisory committee. "The crowds weren't real bad, but they also weren't fantastic."

This was the first season the finals were held at the Pond and the first time since 1983 they were held in Southern California.


Villa Park's Eric Chenowith, along with Burgess, Davis and the Collinses, are at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs this week preparing for Sunday's 20th McDonald's All-American game.

The Southern California contingent will compete on the West squad, which consists of 12 players.

The game will be televised live on Channel 2 beginning at 11 a.m.


The Times will announce its all-area teams next Thursday. Ten boys and girls will be honored in eight circulation areas, including Central City, South Bay/Westside, Southeast/South Coast, Inland Empire, San Gabriel Valley, Ventura County, San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

In addition, the winner of the George Yardley Award for the top boy player and the Cheryl Miller Award for the top girl will be announced.

Finalists for the top boy include Davis, Burgess, the Collinses and Jason Thomas of Dominguez. Crenshaw's Naila Moseley, Crescenta Valley's Michelle Greco and Ventura Buena's Nicole Greathouse are the girls' finalists.

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