PrepFocus: San Francisco high school basketball scene better — and deeper — than ever

Following his team’s loss at Riordan last Thursday, Stuart Hall assistant varsity coach and JV head coach Matt Durell made an interesting observation as the coaches were mingling: The San Francisco high school basketball landscape is stronger than ever.

Between the three major powers from the West Catholic Athletic League, the smaller private schools in the Bay Counties League and the public schools in the Academic Athletic Association, there’s a tremendous selection of good basketball to be found in the City.

There have always been at least a few good teams here and there, typically among the WCAL schools, plus one or two strong public school teams. The level of play all over San Francisco right now, though, is unprecedented.

Take Monday night’s game between Washington and Galileo. Up until a few years ago, a player like Washington forward Jackie Luong would have been the main event in San Francisco, especially after his 34-point performance in the prior week’s loss to Mission. He did steal the show early on, hitting his first four threes in a 12-point first quarter, but it was the work of Da’Jon Aranas and Caelan Wallace that helped the Eagles pull away after Galileo got within two to open the fourth quarter.

Luong is certainly one of San Francisco’s top players, but there isn’t quite as much buzz surrounding him simply because there are so many other talented players around. Even with a strong supporting cast, Washington may not even reach the City championship game because of the strength of teams like Mission and Lincoln.

Having so many strong teams and players in San Francisco right now also means there are far more good games for fans to enjoy. For most of the 2000s, the big games were simply the Bruce-Mahoney, the AAA championship and maybe one of Riordan’s games against the other two WCAL teams. Nowadays, the must-see matchups go far beyond those title bouts and historic rivalries. Even on December 31, a day usually devoid of any good prep sports, Mission will travel to Stuart Hall for a matchup between teams that have each made state tournament appearances for four years running.

There’s also less of a gap between the WCAL and the rest of the competition than there once was. Yes, Riordan did blow out Stuart Hall, but this is an exceptional Crusaders team that lost to Salesian by just nine and finished third at the Gridley Invitational. Additionally, the Knights played without Spencer O’Brien-Steele that night, just as University was without Max Fried during lopsided defeats to Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Ignatius. With Fried back, the Red Devils beat Mission 81-64 and lost to Riordan by just 15.

The team that’s really helped close the gap between the WCAL and the rest of the competition would have to be Lincoln. The Mustangs gave Sacred Heart Cathedral a scare on December 11 before falling 59-52, and lost by just 13 to St. Ignatius. Such strong showings also leave the door open for potential playoff rematches, as Lincoln represented the AAA well in both of those games, which should bode well for seeding for AAA representatives come state tournament time.

If there’s one thing that most of these teams lack, though, it’s a true post player. Stuart Hall sophomore Nigel Burris is more of a wing, and Riiny Riiny, one of two players from South Sudan at Riordan, thrives as an outside shooter. Chan Mayout, the Crusaders’ other player from South Sudan, is a post player, but is out for the year with ACL surgery.

That leaves St. Ignatius’ Neal Begovich and Lick-Wilmerding center Zach Johnson as two of the major post presences in San Francisco. Begovich finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday’s win over Fairfield, while Johnson has been critical in Lick-Wilmerding’s 10-1 start, including 21 points in Tuesday’s win at El Camino. Both have been key components among otherwise young and inexperienced lineups. As the players around them continue to improve and grow, combining their skills with a reliable interior player that impacts the game on both offense and defense should give the Wildcats and Tigers a chance at huge runs down the stretch.

Rounding out the scene would be a pleasantly surprising Sacred Heart Cathedral team. After losing their top two players last year to transfers, the Fightin’ Irish are 4-2 and playing great team basketball, with the two losses coming in tight games against St. Augustine and Harvard-Westlake. On December 26, they’ll start the Damian Lillard Classic, hosted by Oakland High, with a tough matchup against Liberty.

Ethan Kassel

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