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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Great guards and stellar defense give Westchester an edge

This year's senior-dominated team is capable of repeating as state Division I champions.

November 30, 2009|Eric Sondheimer
  • Westchester guard Jordin Mayes unloads a pass against Oakland McClymonds in the Division I state basketball championship game last March.
Westchester guard Jordin Mayes unloads a pass against Oakland McClymonds… (Steve Yeater / Associated…)

If possessing top guards and playing stellar defense is the secret to winning a basketball championship, then Westchester High is the team to beat when action begins tonight.

"They're pretty much by themselves in the elite group," said Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight.

With banners in the gym celebrating 10 City Section championships and five state championships, Westchester has established a standard of excellence under Coach Ed Azzam that's based on aggressive man-to-man defense. If the players execute, the rest will take care of itself.

"We've got great chemistry," guard Kareem Jamar said. "We just have to get used to everybody being aggressive."

Gone is point guard Dominique O'Connor, the City player of the year who signed with San Francisco. His ball-hawking style will be missed. But Jamar, All-City guard Jordin Mayes and senior guard Denzel Douglas are loaded with experience and ability. Add 6-foot-6 Dwayne Polee Jr., plus 6-9 Reggie Murphy, 6-5 Menas Stephens and 6-7 Mario Nored, and you have a senior-dominated team capable of repeating as state Division I champions.

"They're going to be very tough to deal with for anybody," McKnight said. "If we get a chance to play them, I'll be a happy camper."

Mater Dei is going to have a different look. For the first time since early this decade, the Monarchs are going to rely on a full-court press, athleticism and all-out shooting. They have three Pacific 10 Conference-bound guards in Gary Franklin (California), Tyler Lamb (UCLA) and Keala King (Arizona State). And Max Hooper, a 6-5 transfer from San Jose, can shoot from long range.

"We're not the all-airport team anymore," McKnight said, referring to the days when the 6-10 Wear twins would walk into an airport and draw stares.

"We shoot the ball real well. It's going to be real hard to zone us. We're going to do a lot more motion, a lot more pressing. It's a different style. You have to change with what you have."

McKnight also is set to become the winningest coach in state history.

He has 828 victories, putting him 16 short of passing Mike Phelps, who coached at Alameda St. Joseph and Oakland Bishop O'Dowd. He needs two victories to pass former Oxnard Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich to become the Southern Section career leader.

Top tournaments

The Westchester tournament starts today, with the Comets, Woodland Hills Taft, Los Angeles Crenshaw and Lawndale Leuzinger among the 16 teams entered. The Redondo tournament also begins today and is filled with top-25 teams, including North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, Gardena Serra, Los Angeles Fairfax, Santa Monica and Long Beach Poly.

JVs to the rescue

For the last two seasons, Lake Forest El Toro has finished first in the Sea View League without returning a single varsity starter. In fact, the team has won or shared seven consecutive Sea View championships.

El Toro once again returns no starters, but don't think that Coach Todd Dixon doesn't have a plan to keep his streak alive.

"I don't know if it's possible, but we're going to try," he said.

It's a tribute to the El Toro program that players from the lower levels and varsity backups have kept the team winning league titles.

This season could be the toughest task yet because Santa Ana Foothill returns most of its top players from a team that went 8-2 and tied for the league title with El Toro and Huntington Beach.

A guard on the rise

Don't be surprised to see Taft junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie playing in the Pac-10 one day. He was one of the most improved players over the summer and is ready for a breakout season.

Freshman to watch

Ausar Madison, a 5-6 point guard, will become the first freshman to start for Sherman Oaks Notre Dame since Cody Pearson in 2000. He also plays saxophone in the school band.

A real sharpshooter

Palisades Coach James Paleno remembers the days when Chip Engelland averaged better than 30 points a game for the Dolphins in 1979, before there was a three-point line.

"Chip was open when he walked through the door into the gym," he said.

Now Paleno intends to give similar shooting freedom to 6-3 senior Garrett Nevels. "He had a great summer," Paleno said.

"He shoots it from deep."

Welcome home

Ervin Ware, a starter at Cerritos Gahr as a sophomore, has returned for his senior year. He didn't play last season after being in transfer limbo while attending Long Beach Cabrillo and Lakewood Artesia.

"Forgive and forget," Coach Bob Becker said. "We're moving on. He's going to have a great year."

Ready to dominate

Kyle Caudill, Brea Olinda's 7-0 junior center, has lost weight, gained mobility, improved his strength and should average above 20 points a game and close to 15 rebounds.

Yes, Oaks Christian

Yes, Oaks Christian is a school known for its powerhouse football program, but the basketball program might be ready to win a section title. Guard Taylor Hange is a three-year starter, and 6-7 junior Dillon van der Wal is much improved.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATsondheimer

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