Each boys basketball team in the Foothill League has something to prove.
Hart High returns with hopes of a fourth straight title and has two transfers to add to its already talented roster. But both Saugus and West Ranch are ready, with a host of multi-talented players, for their own shot at the crown.
MORE: Saugus’ Phipps finds his voice
Don’t sleep on the other three, either. Valencia has a talented, young group.
Canyon is getting a fresh start with a first-year coach who has a vision. Golden Valley is looking to build on last season’s revival.
League is where it counts, as any Foothill coach will tell you. Preleague has given us a glimpse of what these teams have, but the first impression in league is what counts.
It starts tonight, and here’s what to expect from each team in the order they finished last year:
The Indians (10-5) are at full strength, finally.
After playing most of their preleague schedule without four impact players, Hart enters its league opener against Saugus with a deep rotation dead set on winning a fourth straight Foothill crown.
Junior Whitten Dominguez and senior Ben Kaufman, the team’s two key returners from last season’s 10-0 league run, both missed significant time due to injuries earlier this season. Dominguez returned last month and has been on a tear. He scored 28 points in a 71-62 loss to Village Christian of Sun Valley on Jan. 3.
Kaufman, who hurt his knee in the championship game of the Heritage Christian tournament on Dec. 8, played limited minutes in two games last week. Coach Tom Kelly said he expects Kaufman’s minutes to return to normal tonight.
Then there are juniors Luca Robinson and Tre Harrill, the team’s two high-profile transfers who became eligible on Jan. 2.
Harrill scored 12 points in a 63-54 loss to Knight of Palmdale on Friday night. Kelly expects both players to make an impact in league.
“There’s a little rust to be expected,” Kelly said. “We’re just trying to work out the kinks … and get ready for league.”
Hart’s rotation runs deeper, though. In the absence of those four players, others like 6-foot-1 senior Renz Brual and junior Cory Sveiven have caught Kelly’s eye.
Brual provides another scoring option, while Sveiven gives the Indians a settling, under-control guard presence, like 2016 grad Dante Matera.
The fact that those two, and the rest of the Indians, played together over the summer gives Kelly hope it won’t take multiple games to jell in league.
Preleague has come to a close, but Canyon’s transformation is still continuing.
The Cowboys are still learning the intricacies of small ball, as their team is lacking overall in the height department.
“Although we’re small, we’re good athletes,” said first-year coach Alex Dunwoody. “They’re
able to negate some of their lack of size with their knowledge of the game … It’s just a mixture of playing fundamentally sound and not gambling as much and pressuring teams.”
Senior Yvan Yomba provides most of the height on the team, measuring in at 6-foot-6. He’s averaging 13 points per game and has a coach-like presence on the floor.
“He’s a very good leader just vocally,” Dunwoody said. “He’s pretty personable. He’s able to carry that much more weight and connect with a lot of kids.”
Entering league 5-10, Dunwoody feels is team is very close to a breakthrough.
“My kids are very competitive and work very hard. It’s just a matter of breaking their old habits,” he said. “If they follow directions, they will be successful.”
Other key contributors to watch include seniors Josue Valencia and Steven Aguirre.
In the big picture, the Grizzlies enter league with momentum. They are coming off the program’s best season in five years, finishing tied for second in league and advancing to the second round of the CIF playoffs.
As far as this year, Golden Valley comes in having lost five of its last six games as well as two key contributors.
Grizzly players Milan Taylor, Stephan Alla and Brandon Wilson quit the team midway through a game late last month. Taylor has since been reinstated and will play tonight against Canyon.
Alla and Wilson are no longer with the program, according to a statement from Golden Valley’s athletic department. Keys said he could not comment further.
Alla and Wilson, who transferred to GV before this season, had been playing key minutes for the Grizzlies, who graduated all-league, first-teamer Bryce Tyler-St. Clair and a large senior class after last year’s run.
Sophomore Richard Kawakami has established himself as one of the Foothill League’s best players and will be asked to carry more of the load offensively.
“We just want to compete every night and play hard and play together and let the chips fall where they may,” Keys said.
Although the Wildcats have emerged from preleague at just over the .500 mark (8-7), that doesn’t mean this year’s team isn’t dangerous.
“(Our strength is) just how dynamic we can be,” said coach Shant Bicakci. “How well we can play, defense, we’re athletic at a lot of the positions so in one word I’d say we’re pretty versatile.”
Austin Galuppo has been providing both height and shooting ability for West Ranch this year with 21.6 points per game.
His abilities aren’t just limited to offense, however. He also averages six rebounds.
“He can guard one through five, he can rebound, those are all the things that get overshadowed,” Bicakci said. “He can play ‘D.’ He can rebound. He can attack the basket. There’s more to his game than shooting.”
Andrew Austin, a sophomore, has been shouldering a heavier load as the season progresses. He’s contributed points (9.2 ppg), but has shown the most improvement on defense, particularly on-ball defense.
Bicakci added that Chris Kodama and Suren Aghazadian are two returners to keep an eye on, too.
“We’re just trying to play our best and outcompete every team. That’s the only thing we can do right now,” said Bicakci.
Every game is a battle for the Vikings. And the defense is always prepared for the front lines.
“We have strived on the defensive end,” said coach Chad Phillips. “That has saved us in some games. One of our biggest detriments is we lack some size, so we’ve been pretty small in some of our battles.
“It’s just rebounding and it’s been tough for us to stay in games, but we’re in a better
situation than last year at this time.”
Kyler Motoyasu has been at the forefront of the defensive effort, averaging six rebounds per game.
Offensively, a versatile Zach Hawkins and a hard-nosed Dexter Akanno have been key for the team.
Valencia will begin league play and the chase for its first league title since the 2014-15 season (it shared with Hart) tonight against West Ranch without key sophomore Jayden Trower.
Trower is the team’s leading scorer with 12 points per game and is currently day-to-day with an undisclosed injury.
The Vikes finished preleague with a 7-8 record, but went 3-1 at the Ventura Kiwanis Tournament, proving the team is making progress.
“When we’re clicking on all cylinders, we’re a pretty good team,” Phillips said. “I don’t think we’ve clicked yet and our best games are yet to come.”
The Centurions (10-4) are this year’s most improved team. After finishing tied for fifth in league last season — the only Foothill team to miss the playoffs — Saugus has had arguably the best preleague run of any SCV team and is the only Foothill team ranked in the latest CIF-Southern Section poll (No. 8 in Division 2A).
Led by 2016 all-league first-teamer Zach Phipps, Saugus has only lost back-to-back games once through its first 14 contests.
Phipps is averaging 20 points per game, but he’s not the team’s only offensive threat. Senior wing Anthony McIntyre can break down defenses with his quickness and junior Luke Bodeau can beat teams over the top with long-range shooting.
Micah Tobon, a 6-foot-4 senior, is the team’s best post player.
It all adds up to a confidence the Cents’ aren’t bashful about.
“We’re not going to be shy about it or afraid to say it,” said coach Bill Bedgood. “We’re trying to win league.”
One win that makes Bedgood believe that’s a possibility was his team’s 76-61 win over Santa Barbara on Dec. 28 in the Santa Barbara Holiday Classic.
“To beat a good quality team in their building is always a challenge,” Bedgood said. “That’s the kind of thing you have to do to compete in our league.”
After beating Santa Barbara in the second round, Saugus beat Westlake before losing to Curtis High of University Place, Washington, in the tournament final.
The Cents open league at Hart at 6:30 p.m.