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BOYS' BASKETBALL

Monarchs Prepare Early for Success

March 06, 2001|BEN BOLCH

Mater Dei won a Southern Section title Saturday over a very tough Corona Centennial team for the same three reasons the Monarchs will likely go on to win their first state title since 1995: scheduling, talent and depth.

Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight ensured his team would face several of the nation's best teams early in the season by scheduling the Monarchs to play in prestigious tournaments in Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach, S.C. The point was to prepare Mater Dei for runs in the section and state playoffs.

"The main thing is to win the last game of the season," McKnight said last December after Mater Dei fell to the nation's top-ranked team, Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy, in the championship of the Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic. "If this helps, then it was worth it."

It certainly was. The battle-tested Monarchs pulled away from Centennial Saturday late in an otherwise evenly played game because they had been in similar situations in big games earlier in the season.

Husky Coach Val Popov, while defending his team's schedule as difficult, said it just couldn't stack up to the Monarchs'.

Another reason Mater Dei should win the state title is its talent. McKnight, winner of 15 section titles, went so far as to call Cedric Bozeman the best guard he's coached and Jamal Sampson the best center he's coached after the Monarchs beat Centennial, 73-62, at the Arrowhead Pond for the Division I-A title.

That was all too easy with both players seated at his side in the postgame news conference, so McKnight hedged and withdrew his high praise. "Well, I better not say that," he said, perhaps envisioning dozens of angry calls from former Mater Dei greats.

It is hard to imagine a better starting five than Sampson, Bozeman, forward Mike Strawberry, guard Ricky Porter and guard Shaun Michel.

And then there's the team's depth, another reason why it should leave Sacramento's Arco Arena in two weeks with a championship plaque. Guards Trevante Nelson and Wesley Washington--stars last season for a Fontana team that gave Mater Dei fits--didn't play one second in Saturday's game. You know your team has too many quality players when power forward Harrison Schaen, sharpshooter Travis Gabler and point guard Brian Baker are coming off the bench. They would be starters for any other team.

Mater Dei's depth may be its saving grace. With Michel and Baker sharing the ballhandling duties, Bozeman said his legs are much fresher than they were last year at this time, when he had to play the point throughout the playoffs.

Bozeman simply ran out of gas last season at the Forum in the Southern Regional final, when Fresno Clovis West beat the Monarchs to advance to the state final.

This time, expect Mater Dei to beat Glendora, Upland and Westchester en route to another state title.

NO REGRETS

El Toro's four senior starters--Ashkan Nazeri, Chris Parish, Matt Green and Ken Tanaka--didn't need to walk off the Pond floor with hung heads Saturday after losing to Glendora, 51-44, in the Division I-AA final.

The Chargers had a season to remember, even though it didn't end as planned. Each player should be proud of the team's accomplishments in reaching its first section title game. El Toro had risen as high as No. 2 in the Orange County Sportswriters' Poll during the season and was officially placed on the map of high school powerhouses in Coach Todd Dixon's fifth season.

Similarly, Capistrano Valley has no reason to be down after losing the Division I-AAA title to Upland, 72-51. The Cougars, the season's Cinderella story, were a scrappy bunch who overachieved.

"Our guys surpassed everyone's expectations," said Capistrano Valley Coach Brian Mulligan, noting that his team wasn't listed in The Times' preseason top-10 rankings. "It's the most cohesive group of kids I've ever coached."

RIPPLES IN THE POND

Centennial forwards Lance and Erik Soderberg, brothers who transferred from Mater Dei in January 2000, did not have particularly good games against their old teammates. Lance Soderberg scored nine points, but he did so on three-of-12 shooting. Erik Soderberg scored four points and grabbed eight rebounds but had five turnovers. Both fouled out. If there's any consolation it's that Lance, a junior, will be back next year for one more shot at the Monarchs. . . .

Sampson's biggest contribution Saturday may have been avoiding his fifth foul. He was whistled for his fourth foul with 2 minutes 4 seconds left in the third quarter and sat on the bench until the beginning of the fourth. The Monarchs clearly were not the same without their big man, as Centennial ended the third quarter on a 7-2 run. But even though Sampson had to play gingerly on the defensive end upon his return, Mater Dei pulled away. "I just made sure I kept my hands straight up [on defense] instead of leaning over," Sampson said. "That's how I had been getting fouls." . . .

Porter said he is being recruited by Long Beach State, Liberty and Virginia. Porter said UC Irvine, which initially showed interest, has decided not to pursue him. Porter, who averages 11.8 points and plays outstanding defense, would be a fine addition to any mid-major Division I school. . . .

Attendance at the Pond Saturday was up nearly 50% over last season's title day and approached the all-time record. Combined attendance for the morning and evening sessions was 21,131, shy of the all-time mark of 25,739 set in 1994 but a drastic improvement over last season's crowd of 14,115. Attendance was boosted by the marquee Mater Dei-Centennial matchup and a large contingent of Upland fans who celebrated the school's first section title.

*

If you have an item or idea for the high school boys' basketball report, you can call us at (714) 966-7826 or e-mail us at ben.bolch@latimes.com

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