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Proving Ground

J.J. Sola Working Hard to Make a Good Impression at Capistrano Valley


J.J. Sola squeezes himself into a high school desk seemingly designed for someone half his size and is reminded of the numbers that have been a big part of his sometimes controversial high school basketball career.

At 6 feet 7 inches tall, the 235-pound senior forward led the county in scoring last season at Aliso Niguel, where he averaged 26.7 points a game.

He ranked sixth in rebounding (11.2) and shot 56% from the field.

Those are the statistics for which Sola is recognized, but he readily admits they are not the numbers people are talking about.

Sola, who has made an oral commitment to attend Loyola Marymount next fall, is playing this season for Capistrano Valley, his fourth high school in four years. Despite the ability to score seemingly at will, he has no Southern Section championship rings to show for his moves.

And he acknowledges that he and current Cougar teammate Nathan Hair have been branded temperamental "basketball mercenaries." After all, this is Hair's third high school in four years.

They have heard the criticism: They are being shopped around as a package deal with nothing but their own interests at heart. It's something their parents fiercely deny.

Such a reputation, true or not, is a lot for a 17-year-old to carry, Sola said. He sat down at Capistrano Valley the other day with some of his new teammates to talk about his situation.

Seated in that chair, 15 pounds heavier than he was last year thanks to a regimen of weightlifting and pasta, he rubs his hand over his short-cropped, bleached hair and confidently says he recognizes the upcoming season may be a referendum on just who he really is.

"Me and Nate have to prove that we're not jerks," Sola said.

There might not be a better place to do that than at Capistrano Valley, where Coach Brian Mulligan, beginning his third season, agrees that prep basketball fans throughout the county will be watching.

Mulligan grew up in a basketball family--his father, Bill, coached at Saddleback College and UC Irvine and his brother, Shawn, is the girls' coach at Dana Hills. Brian is a no-nonsense guy who was formerly the school's vice principal in charge of discipline. Sola said he appreciates Mulligan's reputation for speaking his mind and has already felt his coach's wrath.

Mulligan said this could be the best team Capistrano Valley--maybe the county--has seen in a long time. Or, it could be a complete flop if Sola doesn't adhere to the game plan: If you learn to play better defense and don't walk back down the court after a basket, we'll give you the ball--a lot.

"Only time will tell," Mulligan said.

Mulligan is most concerned about team chemistry. He said, so far, the old players have accepted the new ones, and vice versa.

Hair, who averaged 14.3 points last season and already has signed to play at USC, and Sola have joined their new teammates on regular fall outings, such as football and girls' volleyball games. They say their goal is to emulate the success of the volleyball team, which reached the Southern Section Division I-AA championship match before losing to Newport Harbor.

"Having good players here makes us an even better team," said Mike Stowell, one of three returning starters. A 6-3 guard, he averaged 16.7 points last season. "I know a lot of people thought we couldn't get along with each other. I know a year or two ago, maybe we wouldn't have. But that's not the case now."

The offense appears to be in good hands, but the defense?

"These guys are incredibly together," Mulligan said. "But they are a little too cocky. I'll let them be cocky if they all keep their part of the bargain, which is play defense. So far, though, they haven't fulfilled their part of the bargain. If they do, potentially, they could be one of the best teams ever."

Team Player

Sola, Hair and their teammates are keenly aware of the attention they are drawing. Several say they are concentrating on teamwork instead of pointing toward individual achievements. They point out that Sola has proved to be a fine passer who doesn't mind giving up the ball.

"A lot of people think we won't be able to share the ball with each other now that Nate and J.J. are here," said 6-foot guard Jermaine McDaniel, another returning starter. "They think we're all selfish. Well, we're the most unselfish team there is."

Sola admits to being cocky, but his sojourns weren't entirely of his own making.

He and his mother, Kathleen Sola, who was recently divorced, lived near Edison High in Huntington Beach when J.J. was in eighth-grade and playing on a traveling team in National Junior Basketball. He befriended Hair, an opponent he respected from another team. Eventually, Sola and Hair, who lived near El Toro High, decided to play together in high school. They settled on Ocean View, according to Nathan's dad, Dan Hair, because they had a lot of respect for Seahawk Coach Jim Harris, who was a neighbor of the Hairs.

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