After a 21-3 regular-season record and Baseline League championship, the CIF open division playoff pairing announcements on Friday afternoon weren’t a matter of if for the Damien High School boys basketball team.
More like a matter of who, when and where.
The Spartans knew they’d be invited to the Southland’s biggest dance and on Friday they got their first-round assignment: a home game against Orange Lutheran (22-4) on Feb. 19.
“We’re really excited,” Damien head coach Matt Dunn said. “If you have a team that you think can compete at that level, it’s an incredible opportunity. I think we’ve earned the right to play in the best of the best tournament.”
Damien was made the No. 5 overall seed. Orange Lutheran is the No. 12 seed. Only one other local boys team made the field and that was Cantwell Sacred-Heart, which went 15-11 and will play at Etiwanda (20-7) on Thursday.
Cantwell made the open division last season and lost its first-game in overtime to eventual champion Mater Dei.
“Our hope was that we would make it,” Cantwell coach George Zedan said. “All along we were trying to schedule and play the best teams that we could play in order to measure ourselves against the best teams in the state.
“The fact that we’re in, we’re excited. We love the idea of the open division. There are no easy games, so I don’t know that seeding matters a ton. I don’t know much about Etiwanda, but I know their coach is a defensive and they’re big and physical and athletic.”
All hope is not lost for teams that lose first-round games. First-round losers go into a consolation bracket where the winner gets an automatic bid to their division’s state playoffs. All first-round winners in the open division are guaranteed a berth in the state playoffs, too.
Keppel’s girls team made the girls tournament for the second consecutive season. The Aztecs went 21-5 in the regular season and were made the No. 10 seed. They will visit Vista Murrieta (20-6) in Wednesday’s first round.
“I figured we’d be in there,” Keppel head coach Joe Kikuchi. “I’m more excited to see what we can do this year. We’ve had that one year of experience of playing in it, so I’d like to see what we can do now.
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about them (Vista Murrieta). It’s going to be tough, especially at their house.”
For Damien, the opponent didn’t really matter. The competition is so stiff, it’s not like there are any preferred match-ups, according to Dunn.
“It’s probably the least climactic CIF draw that I’ve ever participated in because you know it really doesn’t matter,” Dunn said. “In a normal division, you know there are only those on or two teams you hope you’re inside the opposite side of the bracket from. But in this tournament, every game is literally like a CIF championship.”