Bishop Amat and Bonita high schools have gone back and forth the past few years in the East San Gabriel Valley, taking turns as the Tribune’s No. 1 girls basketball team with both earning CIF-Southern Section titles along the way, Bonita winning in 2011 and Bishop Amat in 2012 and a runner-up last season.
Nothing’s changed for the areas top programs, except the playoff road is more difficult.
Both teams moved to Division 1AA, arguably the toughest in Southern California, which includes Mater Dei, Long Beach Poly, Lynwood and other heavyweights.
However, with the creation of the new “open division,” which takes the top 16 teams in the CIF-SS at the end of the season, some divisions like 1AA could become more winnable with the top teams pulled out for the “open division” winner take all tournament.
It’s something Bishop Amat and Bonita will keep close tabs on during the season along with young Workman, a team that competes in Division 4AA with powers Harvard-Westlake, Windward and Bishop Montgomery. If those private powers are selected to the “open division”, Workman may finally be in a position to make a deep tournament run.
But there’s no arguing Bonita, Bishop Amat and Workman are clearly the class of the East San Gabriel Valley for the 2013-14 season. Here’s a look at the Tribune’s preseason top ten:
TO SEE A BRIEF LOOK AT THE TOP TEN, CLICK THE THREAD
1. BONITA (25-7)
Nikki Wheatley’s senior year has finally arrived.
The UNLV-bound point guard won a CIF-SS divisional title as a freshman and has guided her team to at least the divisional semifinals each season along with three state playoff appearances.
The Bearcats teams have been nothing short of fantastic with Wheatley, going undefeated three straight years in the Hacienda League (36-0) with an 82-16 overall record during her tenure.
Wheatley is also the reigning two-time league MVP, two-time Tribune player of the year, and there are probably more accolades along the way.
Another reason to be excited at Bonita is because of La Salle senior transfer Kandyce Smith, a pure scorer who plays on Wheatley’s travel ball team and who also signed a letter of intent with UNLV.
Smith averaged 17 points and six rebounds while competing in one of the best leagues in Southern California, the Del Rey, where she earned first-team honors as a junior.
“We’re going to have an amazing season, I’ve been playing with Kandyce since I was super little,” Wheatley said. “Our chemistry is amazing. it’s going to be great to have her as my teammate and then follow up another four years in college. I feel like we’re going to be a great dynamic duo this year and for years to come.”
Bonita also returns junior three-point threat Ariana Ado to go with highly touted freshman guard Alysso Ono.
“We obviously have high expectations,” Bearcats coach Darren Baumunk said. “Our first goal is to win a league championship, then after that it’s to go as far in the playoffs as we possibly can.”
Baumunk realizes that once his team gets to the playoffs, the postseason will be more challenging than years past.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Baumunk said. “But certainly, once you get to the playoffs, it’s a tough road for anyone in (Division 1AA).”
2. BISHOP AMAT (26-10)
The Lancers return after a heartbreaking loss to Canyon Springs in last year Division 1A title game, losing on a buzzer-beater, 48-46, after blowing a lead down the stretch.
Although the Lancers lose forward/center Mauriana Clayton and bruiser Leeah Powell, they do bring back senior scorer and Del Rey League first-team selection Paulina Santana to go with arguably their best player, Dagmar Ramirez, who is returning after an ACL surgery that forced her to miss the playoffs last year — a big reason the Lancers didn’t come away with a title.
The Lancers also return senior Janae Chamois and highly touted 6-foot freshman post player, Jurhandi Molina.
“She’s a freshman playing varsity basketball, those kids are pretty rare,” Lancers coach Richard Wiard said. “She’s going to start for us, so she’s pretty good.”
The Lancers advanced to the divisional finals despite finishing 2-6 and fourth in the super tough Del Rey League, which features powers Serra, St. Bernard and Bishop Montgomery. The Lancers will once again have a hard time finishing in the top three in league, not to mention a much more difficult playoff road than years past.
“Our league is tough every year, absolutely, Serra was so good last year and Bishop Montgomery returns some kids,” Wiard said. “But our division is 1AA. It’s the big heavyweights. Even if you take out half a dozen for the open division, there are still 12 to 14 teams among the best in Southern California.”
3. WORKMAN (24-5)
The defending Montview League champions finished 14-0 in league and return an ever better and more experienced squad this year.
Lobos sophomores Leslie Rivera and Alize Williams earned first-team all-league honors as freshman, with Williams averaging 15 points and Rivera leading the team in three-pointers with 31.
Junior Denise Gonzalez, who somehow only earned league honorable mention honors after averaging 20 points a game, returns as the teams’ leading scorer along with sophomore Melanie Gonzalez, another honorable mention honoree.
Another sophomore, Alicia Guirre, is also projected as one of the teams’ best players. She was injured as a freshman, so the Lobos are still young and solid all the way around.
The Lobos have a hard time competing in the Division 4AA playoffs because of the super private powers in the division. But because of the newly created “open division” the Lobos could benefit come playoff time.
4. DIAMOND RANCH (21-8)
Traditionally, the Panthers have been one of the areas top teams and advanced to the divisional semifinals last year, losing a nailbiter to Laguna Hills, 58-56.
However, who knows how they will do after the administration decided to part ways with longtime coach Mike James, replacing him with on-campus coach Mike Power.
The Panthers only graduate two seniors, but one was leading scorer Tai Lark, who averaged 10 points per game.
The Panthers return 5-foot-9 senior Lauren Graves, who averaged eight points and senior Cayla Freeman, who averaged seven points. But the big returnee is sophomore Farrah Castillo, who earned All-Hacienda league first-team honors as a freshman. Junior Emilee Du is also back after earning second-team all-league honors.
The Panthers are still good enough to be projected second in the Hacienda League, albeit a longshot like everyone else against favored Bonita.
5. SOUTH HILLS (16-12)
The Huskies finished second to Ayala in the Sierra League, but should be improved with junior Brittany Wang, a Sierra League first-team selection as a sophomore, and junior Samantha Peres, who earned second-team honors a year ago.
Ayala is still the favorite with returning junior and most valuable player Jackie Richetson to go with senior Sandra Tucker.
6. WILSON (22-7)
The Wildcats went undefeated in the Valle Vista league in the final year for coach Traci Calton and his daughter, Kelli Calton, the league MVP.
But the Wildcats still have enough pieces to be considered the favorites in the league again.
Returning is leading scorer and first-team selection Kaelyn Kawamoto (Sr.), who averaged 13 points along with first-team honoree Jane Yip, who averaged six points as a sophomore.
The Wildcats also bring back second-team selection, junior Sarah Lee.
7. SAN DIMAS (16-12)
The Saints finished second behind Wilson, but there is reason to feel good about the future with three returning sophomores that all earned all-league honors as freshman.
Leading the way is first-team honoree Dy’mond Mitchell, who averaged 10 points along with Jordan Veal, who averaged five points and Deja Johns, the teams’ leading rebounder last year.
Juniors Sydney Thompson and Aunisha Leffridge give the Saints much-needed depth.
8. DUARTE (22-3)
The Falcons only lost three times last year, and twice to Workman to finish second in the Montview League.
But the Falcons graduate all-everything and league MVP Imari Brown, who averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds and nine steals per game. Although Brown is irreplaceable, the Falcons return a pair of Montview second-team selections in juniors Kathy McKiernan and Alyssa Williams, and sophomore honorable mention MacKenzie Barnes.
McKiernan, who averaged 10 points per game, should pick up the scoring slack with Brown gone.
9. DIAMOND BAR (15-13)
The Brahmas finished third in the Hacienda League last season but graduate double-double machine Yewande Alabi.
Returning for the Brahmas, however, is Hacienda League first-team selection Nonah Wu and senior point guard Natalie Wong.
10. WALNUT (10-14)
The Mustangs finished a miserable season by its standards but should rebound with returning Hacienda League first-team junior Kim Mayekawa and second-team sophomore Katya Echavez.