There are no guarantees in high school basketball, as Long Beach Poly learned two seasons ago. The Jackrabbits were cruising along with a 31-1 record and were everybody's pick to win a state championship, until a young, fearless Santa Ana Mater Dei team rose up and eliminated them, 72-55, in a stunning regional playoff defeat.
Poly once again ranks as the favorite to win a state title in the new CIF open division, but the path to Sacramento is filled with bumps and obstacles. This time, though, the Jackrabbits clearly understand that no matter how much talent they have, it's performing night after night that will make the difference.
"Sometimes I feel it is my fault that I could have stepped it up and didn't," 6-foot-6 senior Roschon Prince said.
Prince was a sophomore on the 2011 team that won the Southern Section Division 1AA championship but faltered in the state playoffs.
"I try to go into the gym and work harder so we don't have to go through that again," he said.
Coach Sharrief Metoyer reminded his players during a practice last month, "If you don't practice like you want to win a state championship, it's not going to happen."
The talent is there. Prince, a USC signee, is poised to have his best season yet. He's a versatile four-year starter capable of being the best player in Southern California.
"I've seen him develop from a 6-4 post guy as a freshman to now a 6-6 wing who is a beast in the paint, can drive the ball, can shoot the three, has a high basketball IQ and gets to the free-throw line," Metoyer said. "When he's at his best, no one is better and no other team has a Roschon Prince."
Jordan Bell, a 6-7 Oregon signee, blocks shots, rebounds and has worked on his scoring game.
"I don't think there's anyone in the country with his unique God-given skills he has in terms of timing to block and alter shots," Metoyer said.
Guards Chris Sullivan, Ke'jhan Feagin and Kameron Murrell have played well in summer and fall ball.
But one important hurdle must be cleared, surrounding the eligibility of 6-7 junior transfer Kameron Chatman from Portland, Ore. He was declared ineligible by the Southern Section until March unless he wins an appeal that will be heard Tuesday.
Without Chatman, Poly will find itself facing tough challenges in the Moore League from Compton and Long Beach Jordan, not to mention the expected gauntlet of 1AA title contenders such as Mater Dei, Etiwanda and Los Angeles Loyola.
St. John Bosco has put together an all-star team since the hiring of Derrick Taylor as coach two years ago. Brothers Isaac and Daniel Hamilton came from Crenshaw. Darien Williams arrived from Orange Lutheran. Tyler Dorsey came from Ribet. Devin Burleson arrived from Nevada via Pacific Hills.
Mater Dei has 6-7 Stanley Johnson, perhaps the best player in Southern California. Loyola and Etiwanda have the premier junior point guards in the Southland in Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Jordan McLaughlin, respectively.
Poly and St. John Bosco will play in a much-anticipated late-season showdown at the Nike Extravaganza on Feb. 2 at Mater Dei.
"We learned you have to be on top of your game each and every game," Metoyer said. "You have to be who you've been all season. A couple years ago, in the games we lost, we stopped what we had been doing the entire year, and it's a challenge and it's why not everybody is capable of doing it. It's a long season. It's a grind. You have to keep your kids focused and have to make sure you're prepared."