It's generally accepted that the third-best team in Orange County to begin the season is Capistrano Valley. Well, the Cougars have already played Mater Dei, and were beaten 91-55. That's the kind of disparity we're talking about when considering the strength of the Monarchs.
A year ago, the team was supposed to be in rebuilding mode, but the talent took over and though the Monarchs did not win a Southern Section title, they did go on to win the state title. That's a state record-tying eight banners for coach Gary McKnight, and he should get his ninth with this group. If he doesn't, it will be a surprise to everyone. Mater Dei opened the season ranked sixth in the nation by ESPNHS.
McKnight comes into the season with an 860-79 record in a 28-year career. The Monarchs have won 19 section titles and eight state titles. Come March, that should change.
1. Mater Dei (32-3 in 2010-11)
Who’s coming back: Nine of the top 10 players from last season return, including outstanding senior guards Xavier Johnson (Colorado) and Katin Reinhardt (UNLV). Also back is sophomore Stanley Johnson, who showed last season that he is eventually going to be a star, probably sooner rather than later. Eli Stalzer is also one of the top seniors in Orange County. The Monarchs are loaded.
Key additions/losses: In theory, David Brown is a big loss. He made plays when it counted last season, but the reality is that there is so much returning talent, Brown’s absence might hardly be noticed. Entering the program is another Brown who is no relation: Elijah Brown, the son of new Lakers coach Mike Brown.
Last season: Mater Dei was young last year and were beaten in the Division 1AA semifinals by Corona Centennial, 60-58. The Monarchs avenged that loss and went on to win the Division I state title.
Why they will be good: Mater Dei has all the talent. They have playmakers, they have depth, and they have experience. Although you hate to put this kind of pressure on high school boys, anything short of a state title and this season is an absolute failure. Seriously.
2. Orange Lutheran (27-7)
Who’s coming back: Senior guards Gabe York (6-2) and Payton Banks (6-5) are among the most skilled players in the state at their positions. York, who has signed with Arizona, averaged 19.2 points, and Banks 11.6. Junior forward Darien Williams (6-8) also returns to the starting lineup.
Key additions/losses: Lutheran is going to miss guard James Douglas (Northern Arizona), who averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 assists and was terrific in the playoffs. Freshmen Kendall Lauderdale (6-6) and Jonathan Ross (6-7) should be able to contribute right away.
Last season: The Lancers finished second to Mater Dei in the Trinity League and won the Division 4AA championship.
Why they will be good: One of Lutheran’s most memorable performance last season was a 59-56 victory over Mater Dei in the first round of Trinity League play. Let’s say that again: OLu beat Mater Dei, and three starters are back from that team, including York.
3. Capistrano Valley (24-8)
Who’s coming back: The cupboard isn’t bare this season as guards Nick Thomas (13 points) and Aleks Lipovic (10.4 points, 40 three-pointers), forward Stephen Short (7.6 points, 4.4 rebounds) and 6-9 center Chris Bench (4.1 points, 7.1 rebounds) return this season.
Key additions/losses: Make no mistake, the graduation of Taylor Hamasaki (13.3 points, 84 three-pointers) hurts; the guard -- now at Chapman -- was the go-to player when the season was on the line.
Last season: Finished second to Mission Viejo in the South Coast League; lost in the Division 1A championship to top-seeded Loyola, 74-58.
Why they will be good: As good as Hamasaki was, he didn’t truly assert himself until the stretch run and the playoffs, meaning his teammates got plenty of experience on their way to the 1A title game.
4. El Toro (16-12)
Who’s coming back: Small and guard-oriented, almost everyone returns to the Chargers’ lineup, including junior guards Ryan Roberts, Liam Skelly and Cody White. They will need a big effort from senior Jordan Faison (6-6).
Key additions/losses: Center Ryan Hardy (6-8) is at Pepperdine on a basketball scholarship.
Last season: Finished third in the South Coast League; lost in the second round of the Division 1A playoffs to Montclair, 69-62.
Why they will be good: The Chargers were young last season and lost seven games by six points or fewer; a year older, those should be victories.
5. Mission Viejo (29-3)
Who’s coming back: Junior Evan Zeller (10.9 points) and senior Mike Cramer (6.6 points) were starting guards during a great season for the Diablos, who were 14-3 in games decided by six points or fewer.
Key additions/losses: The sting of graduation hurts with the loss of the team’s primary inside-outside combo, Isaac Neilson (15.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5 blocks), a 6-10 center at Brigham Young, and guard James Cramer (10.9 points, 4.2 assists).
Last season: Finished first in the South Coast League; lost in the Division 2A championship to Ventura, 56-53, in overtime.
Why they will be good: The Diablos learned how to win the close games last season, and they got plenty of experience, but they'll have to learn to live without a difference-making big man in the middle.
6. Ocean View (19-10)
Who’s coming back: Any team with a 7-foot center has a chance to be good, and the Sea Hawks’ Conor Clifford (12.6 points, 9.7 rebounds) is that player. Also back are all-league guards Josh Mishler (6.5 points) and Christian Rivera. (9.6 points)
Key additions/losses: For the first time in the school’s 34-year history, Jim Harris will not be the coach; he died in November from complications from cancer. His son Jimmy, an assistant for several years, is his successor. On the court, the key loss is four-year starting point guard Billy Keller (19.2 points, 3.7 assists). Freshmen guards Tyler Burch (6-4) and Kendall Small (5-11) could contribute.
Last season: Shared the Golden West League title with Santa Ana Segerstrom; lost in the second round of the Division 2AA playoffs to top-seeded Ventura, 73-59.
Why they will be good: Ocean View is deep and experienced, but the real intriguing story is how it responds to Harris’ absence after all these years.
7. Aliso Niguel (26-4)
Who’s coming back: Leading scorer Bryan Fisher (16.2 points, 4.1 assists), a 6-5 guard and the league MVP, is among the players coming back. Junior point guard Scott Lynds (6.9 points) has the potential to be outstanding. The Wolverines should get plenty from forward Luke Chaply (6-5) and guard Jonah Ganz (5-11).
Key additions/losses: Gone to graduation are the second-, third- and fourth- leading scorers on the team, Steven Vizcaino (9.6 points) and twins Daniel Spitler (8.7 points) and Phillip Spitler (8.6 points).
Last season: Won the Sea View League title; lost in the Division 1A semifinals to Capistrano Valley, 61-46.
Why they will be good: Fisher is a known commodity that will have a great season. Lynds is ready to blossom into a big-time player; he scored 17 in a playoff loss to Mater Dei in the first round of the state playoffs.
8. Foothill (23-9)
Who’s coming back: Senior guard Adrian Garcia (4.9 points, 3.6 assists) and junior guard Ryan James (3.8 points) return to the starting lineup this season.
Key additions/losses: Forward Cooper Pickell (14.4 points, 7.8 rebounds) and guard Rob Filley (13.3 points, 7.6 rebounds) were lost to graduation. The Knights are carrying 6-5 freshman forward Eric Patton, as well as their MVP from last year’s JV team, Jacob Dean (6-5), on the roster.
Last season: Shared second place in the Century League with Villa Park behind Canyon. Seeded third, lost to Gahr in the Division 2A semifinals, 71-70, but upset Mission Viejo, 46-43, in the state playoffs before losing to Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Why they will be good: Rusty Van Cleave has built a program at Foothill, which has won 70 games (vs. 22 losses) the past three seasons; in the three before, 36 (vs. 39 losses). There’s no reason to think the program will suddenly take a step backward.
9. Tustin (13-14)
Who’s coming back: Eight players are back, most of them key figures from last season. Among them are a pair of all-league talents, senior guard Jeff Gomez and 6-6 junior forward Deondre Bryant, who should probably be able to match up with almost anyone.
Key additions/losses: The Tillers play tough defense, and should be helped by two seniors on this year’s roster, center D.J. Emerson (6-7) and forward Shaq Griffin-Jones (6-1).
Last season: Finished fifth in the Empire League; lost in the first round of the 3AA playoffs to Bishop Montgomery.
Why they will be good: The Tillers held opponents to 50 points or fewer in 18 games. Because they were so young a year ago, another season of maturity should allow them to blossom.
10. Sunny Hills (19-10)
Who’s coming back: Four of the top five leading scorers return, including guard Martin Kim (12.3 points), who led the Lancers in scoring and rebounding, and Dylan Nahrwold (8.4 points).
Key additions/losses: Graduated forward Arrash Zare (6-1), who was the second-leading scorer (10.1) and rebounder (3.2). Joining the team after sitting out last season are two transfers from Savanna, twins Jarvis and Jasper Parker (5-10).
Last season: Shared third place with Troy in the Empire League, behind Sonora and La Habra; lost to fifth-seeded Edison in the 2AA playoffs, 56-54.
Why they will be good: An intense style with a well-experienced team, similar to Tustin, should pay dividends.
A few other players to watch:
Nick Pallas, Tesoro, Fr., F, 6-7: Shouldn't have any problem contributing to the Titans, and he won't have to carry the team.
JoJo Ballestero, Anaheim Canyon, Jr., G, 5-9: Averaged 17.4 points as a sophomore, shot 43 percent from the arc and knocked down 124 three-pointers.
Jimmy Jackson, Cypress, Sr., G, 5-10: Averaged 20 points, then raised his game even more in the playoffs..
Devon Pflueger, JSerra, Jr., F, 6-6: Averaged 11 points and 8.5 rebounds as a sophomore in the Trinity League.
Ryan Hall, La Habra, Sr., C, 6-7: Led the Freeway League in scoring with 19.7 points and 6.7 rebounds.
J.J. James, Marina, Sr., G, 6-1: Averaged team-high 15.4 points, 6 rebounds and 3.1 assists on squad that finished 7-19.
Dreon Barlett, Edison, Sr., F, 6-2: Played in the shadow of Dylan Garrity but averaged 14.2 points, 3.2 rebounds.