Tiny La Canada school happens to be area powerhouse
From left, Josh Thomas, Justin Cook and Yader Combs help make Renaissance Academy a basketball power and the area’s top-ranked boys team. (Sarah Reingewirtz/Staff Photographer)
STAR-NEWS TOP TEN
1. Renaissance Academy
4. La Canada
6. Pasadena Poly
7. La Salle
By Scott Galetti, Staff Writer
It may be a small school nestled on a hilly street in La Canada with a gymnasium that resembles more of a recreation hall than a high school gym.
To many, this school might be too small to be recognized as a major player when it comes to the area boys basketball scene.
Yet, somehow, Renaissance Academy has emerged as the little school that could and somehow has become a smorgasbord of talent in one location.
The Wildcats reached the CIF-Southern Section Division III-A finals last season, where they fell to Corona Del Mar. Playing without one of their top players, Josh Thomas, they lost to eventual CIF-State Division V runner-up Viewpark Prep in the Southern California regionals.
With everybody returning from a team that went 28-3 including All-CIF Division III-A picks Justin Cook and Thomas, Renaissance Academy is the Star-News’ preseason No. 1 team.
“We went 28-1 this summer, and this team is a lot mentally tougher than last year,” Renaissance Academy coach Sid Cooke said. “They’re all bigger and stronger and they’ve been working really hard.”
Cook, a first-team Star-News All-Area selection, averaged 24 points a game last season to lead the Wildcats. Thomas, a third-team All-Area pick, provided a steady presence on the floor before suffering an ankle injury during the second round of the CIF-State playoffs.
Joining Cook and Thomas from last year’s squad are senior guard Yader Combs, junior center Anthony Stover, who is listed at 6-foot-10, and Hector Harold, a 6-7 junior.
The wild card is newcomer DeAndre Daniels, a talented 6-8 sophomore transfer from Louisiana.
“We have a lot more versatility and we’re much stronger in the post,” Cooke said. “Corona del Mar went 6-10, 6-8, 6-5, so now we can match up better when we play bigger teams this year.”
Among some of the tougher opponents for the Wildcats this season are Baseline League champion and Division I-A quarterfinalist Etiwanda and Channel League champion and Division I-A quarterfinalist Santa Barbara.
Renaissance Academy also will play local road games against Keppel (Dec. 17) and Maranatha (Jan 23) and participate in the San Gabriel Tournament.
“We feel that we can do really well this year, so we’ll see,” Cooke said.
Renaissance Academy’s reign atop the Star-News poll could be short-lived, with the only area team to win a CIF title last season breathing down its neck.
The Bulldogs kept their goals high and fulfilled them en route to a CIF-SS Division II-AA championship.
Pasadena finished the season with a 32-3 record and lost to Fairfax in the CIF-State Southern California finals.
After losing their entire starting five to graduation, including Star-News Player of the Year Trevon Harmon, Pasadena begins the season with basically a new cast of characters.
But don’t let Pasadena’s inexperience fool you.
After undergoing offseason hip surgery, Joseph Henson, a 6-9, 250-pound junior center, is ready to make an impact as the Bulldogs set their sights on another Southern Section title.
“Joseph’s one of those big men being recruited by some Pac-10 schools right now,” Pasadena coach Tim Tucker said. “A lot of things for us are going to happen with the way he goes.”
Henson won’t have to go it alone.
Junior point guard Darius Johnson joins Henson to comprise one of the state’s best 2009 classes.
Joining them will be senior wing man Marcus Harvey, who provides experience; senior Keion Bell, a transfer from Los Angeles Serra; junior forward Travis Flye; and sophomore center Steven Adams.
“We have one of the best ’09 classes in the state, but it’s going to take us a better part of a year for them to mature,” Tucker said.
Tucker expects big things out of Bell, who sat out last season after winning a CIF title with Serra as a sophomore. He is being heavily recruited by Cal.
“Keion is a very explosive player, a high flyer and just a show-stopper with his athleticism,” Tucker said. “He just gives us a full package and is probably one of the most solid athletes I’ve had in a long time around here.”
His team needs to jell on the court, but the bar still is quite high.
“I think the expectations are probably another championship or somewhere close,” Tucker said. “The problem with us is that we’re inexperienced. But I think by the time we roll to league and start getting around playoff time, we’ll be rolling again.”
The Minutemen (19-9) return eight players from a team that reached the CIF-Southern Section Division V-AA finals a year ago.
Junior Daniel Dingle, who fought through injuries last season, grew from 5-11 to 6-3 and could be a leader for Minutemen coach Doug Ravasdy after averaging 6.6 points and 2.7 rebounds last season.
Senior Anthony Morton (8.2 points per game) and junior Ronald Cole (10.2 points) also return. Juniors Derrick Simms (5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds) and Mark Elffers (8.1 points) also will provide experience.
“We’ll start four juniors this season with Anthony, and they’re all solid players,” Ravasdy said. “We’re a good six, seven deep with kids that can play different positions.”
His team is not only a year older in terms of experience, it also learned what type of pressure a high ranking can bring.
“We were ranked No. 1 to go into CIF last year,” Ravasdy said. “We have a team that is certainly capable of winning a CIF championship, but we also have the defending champion Pacific Hills in our (Delphic) League and in our way.”
4. LA CANADA
The Spartans finished a Cinderella-type 2006-07 season with a 30-4 record.
La Canada took Campbell Hall to the limit in a 61-57 overtime loss in the CIF-Southern Section Division III-AA title game and eventually reached the CIF-State Division III Southern California regional finals, where it lost to state champion Artesia.
The landscape is much different for Tom Hoffman’s squad this season.
Gone is Adam Malik, who emerged as one of the top players in Southern California.
The Spartans will play more by committee this season with defense a priority.
Will Baldwin, the Spartans’ seventh man last year, returns for his senior season and will be relied on in the post.
Point guard Will Omokawa broke his right wrist in fall practice and will be out two to three weeks.
Riley Heaton, expected to bring a toughness to the guard position, will start at the point until Omokawa returns.
Ryan Lew and Steven Johnson were on last year’s team and expect to see significant minutes this season, along with senior Zack Ward, who played on the junior varsity.
Jeff Grigg, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, scored 50 points in a freshman game against Monrovia a year ago and could be a surprise on this year’s squad.
“We’re really solid at the guard position,” Hoffman said.
Junior Andrew Schiller, 6-4; Josh Newton, a 6-7 junior; Mike Gillespie, a 6-4 power forward; and Clark Anderson all are expected to provide strong contributions.
“We’ve got a really young team, experience-wise, and to be a good team, we’ll need to be strong defensively,” Hoffman said. “If we establish a defensive presence, I think that we have enough good athletes to be a strong team in the area.”
The Moors (15-12) finished tied for third in the Almont League and lost to La Canada in the first round of the CIF-SS Division III-AA playoffs.
Alhambra has five returning players, three of whom – junior guard Aeric Allen, junior forward Kevin Kwan and senior Justin Juarez – saw significant time last season. Senior forward Matt Bell and senior guard Tommy Huynh are expected to see more time in 2007-08. Senior post player Josh Giambalvo and junior Nelson Chan make the jump from the JV team to varsity.
“I think we have really good quickness and will defend pretty well,” said Alhambra coach Joe Petralia, entering his 13th season as Moors coach. “If we shoot the ball OK, we can have a decent year.”
6. PASADENA POLY
The Panthers (15-10) won the Prep League with an 8-0 record a year ago before losing in the second round of the CIF-SS Division IV-A playoffs.
In the third season of his second stint at the school, Brad Hall has a couple of solid returning players to build around in senior A.J. Talt, a 6-6 All-CIF forward the past two seasons, and 6-3 guard John Harewood, co-MVP of the Prep League.
“They’re good and we’re looking to fill spots around them,” Hall said. “Our league should be competitive, but we should be right there.”
Senior Billy Wardlaw, a 5-10 guard, will be looked upon to run the Panthers offense.
Sophomore Justin Worland, a 6-4 post player, is showing rapid improvement.
7. LA SALLE
The Lancers lost eight seniors from a team that went 23-6 and reached the CIF-SS Division IV-A semifinals.
Matt Nuguid, an All-Camino Real League selection as shooting guard, is the top returning player.
The Lancers’ success will ride on his shoulders.
“We’re going to run our offense through him,” La Salle coach Steve Goldstein said. “He’s our team leader on offense and defense.”
Matt Nolan, a 6-4 sophomore center, makes the jump from the freshman team.
Junior guard Drew Assenesi, a transfer from Pasadena High School, and his brother Kelly Assenesi are expected to make major contributions this season.
Jake Godshall, a 5-10 shooting guard, also could make an instant impact.
“We’re small, but quicker than we’ve ever been,” Goldstein said. “We’re going to pressure full-court more than we ever have as well as push the ball up the floor.”
The Wildcats (13-14) finished tied for third in the Rio Hondo League last season and reached the second round of the CIF-SS Division III-AA playoffs.
Gone to graduation is leading scorer Markus Monroe, who averaged 19 points.
“We lost seven seniors last year, but I’m optimistic that we’ll be really competitive,” Monrovia coach Jarod Mix said. “We may struggle at the beginning of the season, but my goal is to improve on our 13 wins last year.”
Phillip Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer (8.2 points), is ready to take over the leadership role.
MacKenzie Hall-Solomon (4.0 points), Phillup Konklin (2.2 points) and Jerod Carr (1.5 points) also look for expanded roles.
Junior center Jonathan Snickles and freshman point guard Derrin Jenkins also are expected to get quality minutes.
Mix is looking forward to getting shooting guard Fernando Gonzalez, center Gerard Longtin, power forwards Josh Walls and Kendell Boggs and Dwight Smith into basketball shape now that the Wildcats’ football season is over.
Mix said he is excited about his team’s chances in the rugged Rio Hondo League.
“I think we’ll have a chance to contend for league,” he said.
The Mustangs (14-13) finished tied for second in the Pacific League a year ago.
They not only have a new coach in Idris Jones but a senior-laden, yet inexperienced squad.
Senior post/wing David Evans is expected to provide an inside presence for the Mustangs after having a successful season on the junior varsity last year.
He is joined by Keith Knetge, Jonathan Hill and junior guard Paul King.
“We’ll have good senior leadership. It’s just a matter of how they handle being in their first year of varsity,” Jones said.
Jones, hired earlier this month, is diligently working on building team chemistry as his team opens the season tonight at Pasadena High’s Rose City Round Ball Classic against Price.
With mostly new players at the varsity level, Jones still is eager to get started.
“What I do like is that it seems we’re on the same page and they believe in what I’m teaching them,” Jones said. “Our intensity and effort is there so I’m very, very optimistic about our chances.”
Hung Duong returns for his eighth year as coach.
The Aztecs (17-10), who finished second in the Almont League last season, return one player, Moses Lim, from that team.
Keppel will rely on five players who learned the system on the junior-varsity level last season.
Leading the charge is senior Alvin Han, who is one of the team’s top shooters, and sophomore Timmy Wong, who makes the jump from the freshman team to assume point-guard responsibilities.
“We have a lot of inexperience, so we’re trying to get chemistry,” Duong said. “We have the pieces to compete, but it’s going to take some time in the preseason.”