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Fans Cozy Up to Sunny Hills

The surprising Lancers are a crowd favorite among the teams playing tonight in the Southern Section boys' basketball semifinals.

March 02, 2004|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Rooting for the Fullerton Sunny Hills boys' basketball team is easy these days. Just ask an opposing coach.

The Lancers, who lost seven consecutive games and nine of 10 in December, have rebounded nicely to advance to their first Southern Section semifinal since 1969.

"They are the crowd favorite. They're everybody's darling, and they're kind of my favorite too," said Coach Brian Mulligan, whose Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley team will play the Lancers tonight in a Division II-AA game at Placentia Valencia.

Sunny Hills (17-13) earned a shot at the second-seeded Cougars (26-3) by defeating third-seeded Los Angeles Loyola (20-8) in a quarterfinal Friday. The visiting Lancers scored the final 12 points to come from behind for a 57-48 victory.

Sunny Hills, which starts five seniors, also traveled to Santa Barbara in the second round and beat the Channel League champions, 59-49.

"It has been kind of a dream season," said Coach Randy Wellen, in his ninth season at Sunny Hills. "It has been just remarkable to see the kids rally around each other."

On paper, the Lancers still don't appear threatening. Steve Schneider, a 6-foot-5 forward, averages 12.8 points, and James Kim, a 6-foot guard, is the only one other player who averages in double figures.

But they have learned to be a pain on defense. Since losing to Etiwanda, the top-seeded team in Division I-AA, 63-37, on Dec. 26, the Lancers have allowed more than 50 points only once, while giving up an average of 41.1 points. They've won 14 of their last 18 games.

"Defense is going to win games," Schneider said. "We get back so people can't fastbreak on us and try to make teams take a lot of outside shots."

Although the Freeway League has not been considered a Southland power, three of the Lancers' five league opponents had centers who were 6-8 or taller. The competition helped prepare Sunny Hills' 6-8 center Mickey Gonzalez to face Loyola's 6-10 center Jordan Wilkes, whom he held to four points, 12 below his average.

"Mickey has proved he can defend with anybody," Wellen said.

Gonzalez missed most of December's games because of acute tonsillitis that required surgery. Although it cost him several games and about 15 pounds, he said the time off helped his recent surge.

"Personally, my legs never would have lasted this long," Gonzalez said. "And [my being sidelined] also got people on the bench some minutes."

In his absence, starters Schneider and Kim continued to develop and both made key contributions in the last two victories.

Schneider had 17 points and 11 rebounds against Santa Barbara; and Kim scored 20 points against Loyola, including eight in the final two-minute run.

Another team on a roll in Division II-AA is Villa Park, which plays top-seeded Riverside King in a semifinal tonight at Riverside Ramona.

The Spartans (22-8) lost five of six games during a stretch in December but are currently on a seven-game winning streak. King (26-4) has won 17 in a row since losing to Loyola on Dec. 30.

The best semifinal in Division I-AA tonight is second-seeded Long Beach Poly playing Lynwood at Cerritos Gahr. The Jackrabbits (26-3) were No. 6 in The Times' final regular-season rankings and Lynwood (22-6) was No. 19. Lancaster (20-8) plays top-seeded Etiwanda (28-1) in the other semifinal at Fontana Miller.

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