“Every year, there are new faces, new players, maybe some new coaches,” Riordan boys' basketball coach Rich Buckner said. “But the teams stay the same.”
There couldn't be a more apt description of the resilient greatness of the West Catholic Athletic League, a brutally competitive conference that consistently produces some of the best teams in the region.
It was another banner year for the WCAL in 2013-14, with all four of the league entrants advancing to the semifinals of Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs, a gathering of the best teams in the section. Mitty eventually captured the Open Division title, and St. Ignatius defeated league rival St. Francis in the CCS Division II final. Bellarmine, which won just two regular-season WCAL games, captured the CCS Division I championship, and Valley Christian, which won a sole league game, finished runner-up in the CCS Division III playoffs.
So anyone expecting a drop-off in talent this season, following the graduation of all but one player on last season's all-league teams, hasn't followed the WCAL closely. While an assortment of talented, decorated guards like Trevor Dunbar of St. Ignatius — the league's Player of the Year last season — Jiday Ugbaja of Riordan and Connor Peterson of Mitty have all graduated, they've been amply replaced by a new batch of talent.
In fact, after a bit of an aberration last season, when small, shifty backcourts set the tone for the league, the always-physical WCAL should be determined once again by teams with the beefiest front lines, a situation that should favor Mitty, the four-time defending league champs led by Ben Kone, a 6-foot-8 junior who ranks among the top big men in the state.
A breakdown of each WCAL team:
Bellarmine: The young Bells suffered their growing pains last season, but finished off the year strong and have looked impressive in the early goings of the 2014-15 campaign. Bellarmine is undersized again this year, but they have an array of guards and slashing swingmen who are among the most talented players in the league. Leading the team this season will be 6-2 senior Masa Swain, a versatile guard-forward who was named honorable mention All-WCAL last year. The real player to keep an eye on is sophomore Angelo Athens, a heady point guard who has the potential to be a truly great player. If the Bells can find a way to dictate a fast-paced tempo against their bigger WCAL opponents, they could play a spoiler role in the league this season.
Mitty: Coach Tim Kennedy has developed a powerhouse in Mitty, and the four-time defending league champs once again enter this season as the favorites in the WCAL. Led chiefly by the exploits of explosive forward Aaron Gordon, now with the NBA's Orlando Magic, Mitty has racked up an astonishing 118 wins over the past four seasons, including two state titles. Yet last season's team, which won 27 games without Gordon, proved that Mitty was more than a one-man show. Kone, the 6-8 junior who is already receiving offers from Division I schools, is seen by many as the heir apparent to Gordon, but Kennedy sees things differently. “They're both great players, but they're both very different players,” Kennedy said. “We don't compare them, so it's not like Ben has any pressure to be like Aaron.” Kone, the lone returnee from the All-WCAL first and second teams, will be helped out this season by 6-2 point guard Dakari Monroe.
Riordan: Riordan may have the lost potent combination of cousins Chiefy and Jiday Ugbaja to graduation, but the Crusaders welcome one of the league's most dynamic players in 6-2 junior guard Eddie Stansberry. Having played at Serra as a freshman before transferring (and subsequently sitting out) last year, Stansberry has terrific court vision, can explode to the rim and can also step back and hit contested jumpers. The Crusaders will lean heavily on him for offense, but if Riordan really wants to compete for a WCAL title, it will need a productive season out 6-8 center Karim N'Diaye. An imposing post presence, N'Diaye has a history of knee problems, and Buckner, the coach, is limiting his minutes and appearances in the early portion of the season. With N'Diaye on the court, Riordan is easily one of the top teams in the league.
Sacred Heart Cathedral: The always-dangerous Irish will miss the contributions of departing guard Deondre Otis and big man Liam O'Reilly, but there is still plenty of firepower on this team. The Irish, whose scrambling, pressure defense often leaves opponents completely bewildered, welcome back 6-2 senior guard David Parsons, who earned honorable mention recognition from the WCAL and whose 75-foot buzzer-beater to defeat Half Moon Bay in the CCS Open Division quarterfinals was one of the most indelible memories of last season. However, the key to the success of Sacred Heart could be the continued development of 6-6 wing players Alfred Hollins and Ramzi Carter Jr. a pair of ubertalented sophomores who saw significant playing time last year as freshmen.
St. Francis: No one expected much out of the ridiculously young Lancers last season, but St. Francis managed to scrape together 17 wins and advance to the CCS Division II final. The Lancers bring back an outstanding core group of players, now one year more experienced. Big and athletic, St. Francis will be led by Noah Stapes and Curtis Witt, two juniors who had impressive sophomore campaigns last year. The Lancers already have an eye-opening win under their belt this season, with a victory over Jesuit of Carmichael in the San Joaquin Section power's own tournament.
St. Ignatius: New St. Ignatius coach Rob Marcaletti views the departure of guard Trevor Dunbar — a 5-9 ballhandling dynamo now playing at Washington State — as an opportunity for his young Wildcats. “Last season, we relied on Trevor for pretty much everything,” Marcaletti said. “There is no question that he was one-of-a-kind player, but I think the guys here are excited about forging their own identity.” Marcaletti welcomes back only two players who saw minutes last season as varsity players, but he said this season's team is exceptionally tough, coachable and eager to get better. “It's going to be a different player stepping up each game this season for us,” Marcaletti said. “If we continue to get better, I think we can compete with the best teams in the league by the end of the season.”
Serra: “Never underestimate a Chuck Rapp-coached team” Bellarmine coach Patrick Schneider said. “You know that, no matter what, that his teams will compete.” Schneider has a point. Under Rapp's watchful eye, Serra has been a consistent winner this decade, with five straight 20-win seasons. Using a tough-nosed, defensive-minded approach to basketball, the Padres can stay in any game, even when their offense is faltering. Senior guard Jimmy Wohrer is set to lead the Padres from the perimeter, with big men Trevor Brown and Jake Killingsworth anchoring things down low. Serra also welcomes in 6-9 freshman center Jack Wilson, a project at the moment, but one who could develop into a dominant post threat.
Valley Christian: The inexperienced Warriors struggled to a one-win campaign in the WCAL last season, but new coach Ryan Cooper thinks the future is very bright for Valley Christian. The Warriors have four sophomores who will see lots of minutes this year, along with a handful of juniors and senior Elias Haile. “We might struggle on offense at times, but the great thing about these kids is that they only know one speed, and that's 100 percent all-out and relentless,” Cooper said. “We will come to play each game at the defensive end.” Two players to keep an eye out for are sophomores Bobby Santos and Miles Kendrick, a pair of explosive, extremely quick guards who are getting better with each game.