Local Hoops Titles Up for Grabs
It's Anyone's Game
The object of the game is as simple as it is difficult. Put a round ball through an 18-inch hoop suspended 10 feet off the ground. Do this more than your opponent in a 32-minute time span and you win. But there are many factors which determine who will do it better. Which team is faster? Who is taller? Who can jump higher or shoot with greater accuracy? Which team plays the toughest defense or makes the crispest passes? Which team plays harder and which team has the best game plan? Who wants to win more?

It is in discovering the answers to those questions that basketball becomes art - potentially beautiful and almost always unpredictable.

The area's best high school hoops artisans have already begun performing in gyms all over town. Hoops practitioners from Saugus, Hart, Valencia, Canyon, Golden Valley and West Ranch have begun marching toward what each hopes will be the playoffs. But only a handful will make it, and as the Foothill League season gets underway, the time for guesses and predictions draws to a close.

Who will be the best local boys and girls basketball teams in 2006-07? This could be one of the most difficult seasons to forecast in years.

See for yourself.

The Girls

For the most part, Hart has controlled the Foothill League for the better part of five years. There have been different challengers over that span; Saugus shared the title in 2001-02 and Valencia shared it two years ago.

But Hart has been a constant. Last year, the Indians punctuated their dominance by capturing the CIF-Southern Section Division I-A title and making it to the state's Elite Eight.

This year's version of "Who will catch Hart?" comes with a new twist, though. Usually, there is one challenger or none at all. This year there are two, maybe three.

"When it comes to girls' basketball, this year's version of 'Who will catch Hart?' comes with a new twist. Usually, there is one challenger or none at all. This year there are two, maybe three."
The team Hart beat to win the section title last year was Canyon, and the Cowboys are loaded this season.

While it's true Canyon loses a lot on the inside with the graduations of center Cheryl Stevens and power forward Brittany Thomas, its guard play, which formed the nucleus of the team that went 23-9 last season, remains intact.

Point guard Jessica Guerrero (7.4 points per game) will control things for Canyon with her steady leadership. As far as scoring goes, senior Nicole Leon (12 points per game) will shoulder the burden. Leon, at 5-foot-11, can play inside, but she can also bring the ball up the court.

How ever Canyon coach Stan Delus feels he can use her to exploit defenses, he will. Her versatility is perhaps her best weapon.

Hart must retool following the loss of CIF Player of the Year Taylor Lilley, who is now playing for the University of Oregon.

But the Indians, who went 28-5 last year, still have enough weapons to send longtime head coach Dave Munroe into retirement with another league title.

Oregon-bound Tatianna Thomas returns for her senior year. The 5-foot-10 forward is Hart's top scoring threat with good reason. She can battle inside and she possesses the athletic ability to dribble by defenders.

Sophomore forward/center Megan Ford and senior forward/center Kalana Inemer will anchor Indian attack on the inside. Both are tenacious defenders and rebounders, and Ford is a potent scoring threat in the low post.

Saugus will also challenge for the title this year. This is head coach Eric Olsson's third season back after a one-year hiatus, and his rebuilding plan is nearly complete.

He will field a team that has looked twice as good as the team that went 19-9 last season. Gabby Conn and Serena Blair provide toughness and scoring under the basket, but the real fireworks come from the team's guards.

Sophomore Nicole Hicks and junior Lauren Labat are almost impossible to contain. The pair can drive, dish and shoot and at a high enough level to keep opposing coaches up at night.

Look for Saugus to press and run all season, perhaps deep into the playoffs.

And don't forget about Valencia. The Vikings went 4-1 in the second half of the Foothill League season last year, and they return every starter.

Seniors Charise Hall and Danielle Jenkins provide the muscle down low while Brooke Sansone gives Valencia an outside scoring threat.

Juniors Ali Ceppi and Chelsey Hastigan round out a balanced Viking attack.

Golden Valley and West Ranch join the Foothill League this year, but that won't necessarily mean easy games for the Foothill veterans. Golden Valley made the playoffs as a freelance team last year. Already, both schools might be as tough or tougher than the Burroughs and Burbank teams they have replaced.

Golden Valley returns everyone and even adds junior transfer Kendra Carter from Burbank.

"Kendra adds much-needed rebounding," said Golden Valley head coach Travis Best. She is also an excellent long-range shooter. Freshman Brooke Lemar will play point guard and is, according to Best, "the team's best ball handler."

The Boys

At first glance, it looks like this could be a down year for local boys basketball, mainly because the Foothill League's best teams in 05-06 lost so much to graduation.

League champion Canyon lost its top two scorers in Kris Rincon and Lucas Guidroz, as did runner-up Valencia in Teddy Goetz and Donjay Kakonde. As for Hart, all but three members of its varsity squad graduated.

Only Saugus remained mostly unscathed by graduation. The Centurions retained their entire starting five from a team that went 1-9 in league last year.

That may be all the edge Saugus needs.

"For the guys, just about everyone is in the same boat, especially league newcomers West Ranch and Golden Valley. Golden Valley is short on seniors, and West Ranch has none."
"They will have a lot of varsity experience," said Valencia head coach Rocket Collins of the Cents. "And a lot of the games they lost last year were close. They're going to be pretty good."

Guard/forward D.J. Smith, who led the Centurions with 9.3 points per game as a sophomore last year, returns, as does guard Mitchell Weber (8.9 points per game).

Weber's three-point shooting will stretch opposing defenses, but will Saugus have the size inside to take advantage? Its leading rebounder last year was Smith, who is 6-foot-1.

Hart will be led by junior 6-foot-4 forward Marcus Moloznik, now in his second varsity season. Moloznik can score and rebound. Coach Tom Kelly's challenge lies in building a team around him that can make the most of his abilities.

Valencia will look to junior John Otavka and seniors Shane Vereen and Ralph Anumba. The Vikings lost most of their offensive punch when Goetz left, but Collins has shown a knack for fielding 20-win teams.

"We'll be young," he admits. "But it's wide open. It's always wide open to me."

Canyon won 19 games last year, but little remains of that team. Coach Chad Phillips, like Collins and Kelly, will have to lean on youth.

Forward Ryan Kuhn is the team's top returning scorer at 9.3 points per game in 05-06. After that, Canyon is in uncharted territory.

The good news for Phillips and the rest of the league is that just about everyone is in the same boat, especially league newcomers West Ranch and Golden Valley. Golden Valley is short on seniors, and West Ranch has none.

This year, however, the Wildcats and Grizzlies fit right in.
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