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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Mater Dei routs Orange Lutheran in boys' basketball

As they avenge their only Trinity League loss, the Monarchs continue to rise beyond Coach Gary McKnight's expectations.

January 28, 2011|Eric Sondheimer

For those who anticipated Santa Ana Mater Dei going through a rebuilding season after losing five basketball starters to graduation, forget it.

Gary McKnight, the winningest coach in California prep history, has his young team at 20-2 and in position to win a 23rd consecutive league championship.

"They've exceeded what I thought we'd do," McKnight said.

With a little more improvement, the Monarchs could join Long Beach Poly, Etiwanda and Corona Centennial in the mix for the Southern Section Division 1AA championship.

On Friday night, they avenged their only Trinity League defeat with an 84-61 victory over Orange Lutheran (17-6, 5-2) to assume sole possession of first place.

Junior Xavier Johnson made nine of 14 shots and scored 23 points. Katin Reinhardt had 16, Eli Stalzer 14 and David Brown 10.

As usual with a team relying on two freshmen, four juniors, a sophomore and one valuable senior, the Monarchs were inconsistent. They opened a 32-10 lead.

Then senior point guard David Brown picked up two fouls, and suddenly the offense went stagnant. Orange Lutheran scored 11 consecutive points, and the Monarchs looked like anything but a championship contender.

But that's the challenge McKnight is thriving on.

"I just think it's a young team," he said. "They're finding ways to win. But obviously we're a year or two away from being very good. Poly is in a class of their own. Etiwanda is up there. Centennial, Pasadena, Murrieta Valley — there's a lot of good teams."

The Monarchs learned a lesson from their 59-56 loss to Orange Lutheran on Jan. 7.

"Today we came out with a lot more fire and passion," said Brown, the senior point guard who has emerged as a key court leader.

Asked whether the young players are starting to listen, Brown said, "They listen. At first, they might be reluctant, but they've bought into the system."

Johnson, the 6-foot-7 transfer from Temecula Chaparral, is certainly drawing attention from college coaches. Assistants from UCLA, Washington and Notre Dame were in the crowd Friday. He's a smooth, athletic wing player who enjoys being in the spotlight.

McKnight is trying to get the team ready for what figures to be several weeks of tough playoff action in a division that will have few weak teams.

The Monarchs will get another important test before the playoffs with a game next Saturday in the Nike Extravaganza at Mater Dei against Los Angeles Price.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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