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HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL

Two small schools with big basketball dreams

Besant Hill and Hope Centre Academy have unique rosters, and a chance at a boys' basketball title.

March 05, 2009|Ben Bolch

It will be eggheads versus delinquents, overachievers versus might-have-beens, artists versus roughnecks.

Except sometimes it may not be so clear which label goes with which boys' high school basketball team.

Besant Hill School in Ojai was founded in 1946 by educators and philosophers who wanted to cultivate students' creative expression in the arts as well as their intellectual abilities. But Yannick Atanga, the school's rugged 6-foot-7 center from Cameroon, can seem as artsy as an elbow to the face.

Hope Centre Academy in Compton opened 11 years ago as an alternative program for students who are on probation, have been expelled from another school district or are behind in their studies. Yet Athletic Director Carolyn Jones described junior center Shannen Garner as a "dream student" who is college bound.

This weekend, one of these unlikely foils can go by a designation neither has experienced: Southern Section champion.

The tiny schools will play at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Ontario Colony High in a Division VI-A championship that will represent the first section title for either school's athletic program.

Besant Hill's teams might have taken the school's mission of a "non-competitive community" a little too literally. Head of School Paul Amadio said he's constantly ribbed by rival administrators that "our school was always the champion in clog dancing."

But a title hasn't exactly been a long time coming for either school's basketball team; Besant Hill (21-1) is playing in its first season of varsity competition and Hope Centre (17-0) is in its third year of Southern Section affiliation.

"I'm excited to just be going to a championship," said Garner, who averages 19.1 points and 18.9 rebounds a game. "To win it? Speechless. I think it would be a big boost for the whole school."

Garner started high school at Woodland Hills El Camino Real before a truck ran over him, rupturing his spleen and cracking his pelvis on both sides. He fell behind in his studies while recovering and came to Hope Centre, an accelerated program in which students can take the equivalent of two years' classes in one, to "get to the next level" in the classroom and on the court.

Anyone who makes it to a college basketball program from either school will have an unlikely pedigree.

Besant Hill's players practice outdoors on a green hardtop with painted white lines because the school doesn't have a gym on its 520-acre campus. An $8-million athletic center is in the planning stages but appears years away from completion.

When it rains, it pours on the Coyotes because Coach Randy Bertin never cancels practice. Players attempt to dry the court with a giant squeegee and, barring that, they run in the rain.

"It's really special," said junior point guard Ivan Matip, one of three from Cameroon on the team. "It makes us feel like we're tougher because sometimes the conditions are not really proper."

Hope Centre's players have different worries. Two years ago, a gun-toting group of gang-bangers threatened a player during practice before Coach Eddie Collins ushered him to safety. During a separate incident, a former player was shot in the head four times. He survived and goes by the nickname "Miracle Child."

A handful of the current Hope players have criminal records; two are on probation and a third is under house arrest and must wear an electronic ankle bracelet. Though he attempts to cover the bracelet with extra socks and high-top sneakers, Collins said, "you can see a bulge."

Collins makes a point of not inquiring about his players' criminal backgrounds.

"I figure I don't want to judge any kid so I don't get into their gang affiliation or what they got arrested for," the coach said. "I try to treat them all equal."

Finding common ground can be tricky for Besant Hill's team, whose roster features seven international players hailing from Cameroon, South Korea and China. "It's like the United Nations on the floor," quipped Amadio.

Luckily, the Coyotes' coach has found that they all seem to enjoy In-N-Out burgers. But eight languages might be spoken on the court at any time, including three African tribal dialects.

"When you're in the fire of the game, the first thing that comes out of our mouth might be your first language," said Matip, who speaks three languages.

Players from both schools seem relieved that the labels so easily attached to them don't always stick.

And, in another reversal of stereotypes, the inner-city school will be at a decided height disadvantage against its rural counterpart, top-seeded Besant Hill.

Beating the Coyotes, said Collins, the Hope coach, "would prove that our kids can play together and accomplish something."

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ben.bolch@latimes.com

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