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PREVIEWS : SANTA FE LEAGUE BOYS

Douglas, West Provide Bell-Jeff With Power

January 06, 1998|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teams around the Santa Fe League are talking about Bell-Jeff.

They comment on the Guards' three lost starters from last season's league championship team. They discuss the Guards' youth and how those lost starters have been replaced with inexperienced players.

They examine the 10 new names on the 12-player Bell-Jeff roster.

But they also mention that Bell-Jeff is still the favorite to win a third consecutive league title.

Two reasons for that: Ruben Douglas and Mike West.

Douglas, a 6-foot-5 guard who has signed with defending NCAA champion Arizona, is the two-time league most valuable player. He is averaging 36 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists. West, a 6-6 center averaging 22.4 points and 12.2 rebounds, can be dominant in the post at times--especially in a league where he is one of the biggest players.

"This is the most parity I've ever seen in the league," said Steve Goldstein, La Salle's fourth-year coach. "It looks pretty close, but Bell-Jeff has to be the favorite. Nobody else in the league has somebody who signed with Arizona."

Bell-Jeff lost Kent Dennis, second on the team in scoring last season, via transfer to Cleveland. Kenny Esteves, a 6-6 forward, moved to Seattle and rebounding machine Marcos Flores graduated. But Bell-Jeff, opposing coaches say, is still the team to beat.

"A few months ago I would have said Bell-Jeff hands down," said Oscar Leong, Cathedral's coach. "Now it's a little closer with the transfers, but they're still the team."

But Eli Essa, Bell-Jeff's Coach, cautions against engraving that trophy just yet.

"We're the Detroit Lions of basketball," Essa said. "We have the best two players in the league, by far. It remains to be seen what we have surrounding them."

Essa had to promote junior Patrick Thornell and sophomore Lawrence Jenkins from the junior varsity. And a freshman, Chris Jones, starts at point guard.

"The majority of our new players were earmarked for J.V.," Essa said. "Now they're being forced to play varsity. It's a struggle for some of them."

The Guards' primary competition will come from La Salle and Cathedral, runners-up to Bell-Jeff in 1997 and 1996, respectively.

But both teams also are young. The Lancers start two sophomores. The Phantoms start a sophomore, a freshman and three juniors.

Winning a third consecutive league title is a lot of pressure for anyone, especially a team filled with so much youth. But Essa said it may prove to be an advantage.

"I don't think the guys on the team realize that everyone is gunning for us," Essa said.

"There really isn't any pressure for them to uphold any tradition because they're all new."

But despite his Lou Holtz-type of downplay, Essa grins and agrees with the other league coaches on one point:

"No other team in the league has Ruben Douglas or Mike West," Essa said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AT A GLANCE

* THE PROVEN: Two-time league most valuable player Ruben Douglas of Bell-Jeff enters his senior season expected to win a third. Aki Aquino of La Salle is the second-best guard in the league. Forward Mark Padilla of St. Genevieve has increased his scoring average from 11.5 points to 14. Center Mike West provides inside balance for Bell-Jeff.

* THE PROMISING: Six-foot-5 Julian Nava of Cathedral is averaging 16 points and eight rebounds. Freshman point guard Chris Jones can get the ball to Douglas. Sophomore guards Jason Kenoyer and Albert Aquino will start for La Salle. Freshman Johnny Tea of Cathedral has a bright future.

* FAST FACT: Bell-Jeff has won 23 of 24 Santa Fe League games since Coach Eli Essa arrived in 1995.

* 1997 STANDINGS: 1. Bell-Jeff 21-7 overall, 12-0 in league play; 2. La Salle 18-10, 9-3; 3. (tie) Murphy 14-14, 7-5; Cathedral 13-14, 7-5; 5. (tie) Salesian 9-14, 3-9; Mary Star 6-17, 3-9; 7. St. Genevieve 3-22, 1-11.

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