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El Toro Wins With Discipline, Local Talent


You won't find any usual suspects on this top-flight basketball team.

The easygoing star figures to be more dangerous at, say, horseshoes than beating someone off the dribble.

The point guard sits out practices because of his aching knees but makes the most of every game minute without so much as a grimace.

The shooting guard looks more like a teen heartthrob than an outside threat.

And the slender center appears incapable of throwing much weight around in the paint.

Yet, things aren't always what they seem for El Toro, a talented team with four returning senior starters and a youthful coach more focused on the principles of basketball--and succeeding the right way--than wins and losses.

The Chargers, the only Orange County team besides Mater Dei to return one player from The Times' first and second all-county teams, are fifth in The Times' preseason rankings.

El Toro's anticipated success must be attributed to the dedication of its seniors and to Coach Todd Dixon, who has built one of the county's premier programs with neighborhood players and a can-do attitude that stresses discipline. The Chargers have won 75 games in Dixon's four years, an average of nearly 19 victories a season.

"He's into fundamentals, like do your job and let the other people do the talking for you," said guard Ashkan Nazeri, a Times' first-team player who averaged 16.2 points last season. "Don't be too confident but have confidence to play the game.

"He's basically the reason we've been so successful. This program was not well-organized before he came along. He knew the talent we had and he knew how to work with everyone and their abilities to play."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Dixon's teams have featured considerable talent, with this year's lineup expected to be his best.

Dixon said Nazeri's on-court demeanor belies his friendliness. The coach calls him "the ultimate competitor," someone who refuses to lose. The versatile 6-foot senior is known for his shooting and slashing to the basket, but he's also unafraid to post up much bigger players.

Point guard Ken Tanaka is nothing if not determined. The 5-11 senior sat out most of last December with knee problems--his knees have little if any cartilage--then returned as a capable floor leader, averaging 5.3 assists per game. His knees, expected to be a burden again this season, should keep him out at least the first week or so.

Shooting guard Chris Parish, the only Charger to play varsity for four years, is a big-time scorer and defender who always guards the other team's best player. He was a Times' second-team selection last season. And slender center Matt Green is widely acknowledged as the most improved among the starters, a player who has gained confidence and the ability to take the ball to the basket.

But what has made El Toro so dangerous over the last couple of seasons has been Dixon's development of his reserves. The Chargers have been able to rely on a number of role players who aren't so much concerned with providing a spark as preventing a drop-off in intensity.

"It's not really one through four or one through five that wins titles or tournament championships," Dixon said. "It's the six, seven, eight and nine players who come in and contribute. There are games where certain guys aren't going to shoot well or certain guys aren't contributing. That's why we try to develop a complete player, [one who] can come in and do some of the little things we ask and step it up."

El Toro doesn't feature as much experienced depth as it did last season, when it went 10 deep, but the Chargers have more perimeter players who will contribute off the bench, including sophomore backup point guard Jonathan Duran, a transfer from Mater Dei. (Relax, he's a neighborhood kid too.)

The returning starters aren't worried about depth, however, because they play so well together and have taken steps to ensure that they are fit enough to play as many minutes as necessary.

"We've been together so long [since the eighth grade] that we've jelled real good," Nazeri said. "This is our last season. We're all stepping up to another level."

It will be hard to top last season's success, when the Chargers went 24-5 and won the South Coast League title before losing to Rialto in the quarterfinals of the Southern Section Division I-AA playoffs. Players said they started to gain more recognition on campus as the season progressed. By the time they made the playoffs, they were regarded as local heroes.

"My buddies are expecting even more from us this year," Parish said.

If El Toro manages to win a Southern Section title, the players will know whom to thank besides themselves: A coach who instills respectfulness, who doesn't let his players wear baggy shorts with their underwear hanging out and demands that they wear ties on game days. Also, a coach who harps on what it takes to win.

"We drill them from Day 1 as a freshman until they're seniors," Dixon said. "We emphasize the pump fake, the ball fake, the jump stops. I don't believe in rolling the ball out and letting them play.

"I'm really big on the mental side of the game. We talk a lot about the positive attitude and the approach it takes to come into a game and be successful. Not to have that cockiness about us or that arrogance, but keep enthusiastic."

Said Parish: "He's encouraging us but he kicks us in the butt when we need it. He's brought us together."

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