As the high school boys' basketball season enters full swing, coastal Orange County boasts no shortage of competition.
This is particularly true in the always-competitive Sunset League, despite a misconception that the league might be in a down year. Nobody knows this better than Edison coach Rich Boyce, whose Chargers shared the league title with Los Alamitos last season.
"It's a tough league," Boyce said. "People think this league is down. It's not. We have some very good teams, and very good coaches. I think every night in the Sunset League is going to be one of those nights where you never know who is going win."
As Edison looks to maintain its spot atop the league, it will do so without last season's centerpiece — Randall Walker. Boyce recognizes there is no replacing a player like Walker, who was named the Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year as a senior.
With 6-foot-2 senior guard David Atencio returning to run the offense, though, Boyce likes his team's chances to pick up where it left off.
"As David goes, we'll go," Boyce said. "He controls the ball most of the time, so if he's doing the right things and making the right decisions, we'll do well. If not, we might struggle a little bit. But having coached David for two years, he's going to do the right thing 95 percent of the time."
Josh Philips, a 6-8 senior who has signed with the University of Portland, is also slated to play a vital role for the Chargers. He has shown considerable improvement in both his post offense and free-throw shooting.
Newport Harbor, ranked No. 15 in the CIF Southern Section Division 2A poll, should challenge Edison for first.
Newport Harbor coach Bob Torribio returns three key seniors in Jake Bashore, Brad Siegel and Zack Swies, as well as a pair of junior two-sport standouts in Dayne Chalmers and Sam Barela.
Chalmers, one of the top recruits in volleyball, is becoming Newport Harbor's go-to guy in basketball. The 6-foot-4 forward led Newport Harbor to the semifinals of both the Godinez Grizzly Invitational and the St. Margaret's Tartan Classic.
Chalmers, who decided not to play football this fall, looks healthy and fresh. He's a reason why the Sailors (7-3) boast one of the best defenses in the area.
Newport Harbor looks to fight its way to the top of the league standings after sharing third place with Huntington Beach last season.
The Oilers' top scoring threat is senior guard Cade Ortiz, but they have struggled, losing seven of their first eight games this season.
Marina, led by junior forward Jakob Alamudun, could also make some noise in league play. The Vikings, who last season went 3-23 overall and 1-9 in league, tying Fountain Valley for last place, are off to a 6-3 start this season and they're ranked No. 7 in Division 3A.
Alamudun averaged double-digits as a freshman and sophomore. He's poised to do so again as the focal point of the Vikings' offense.
Corona del Mar, which went into Saturday at 6-2, is moving to the Sunset League next season. In the meantime, coach Ryan Schachter's squad has its sights set on defending a Pacific Coast League championship.
The Sea Kings, No. 12 in Division 2AA, have seamlessly navigated the loss of junior D.J. Rodman, who transferred to JSerra this fall, with a pair of 6-5 guards in Kevin Kobrine and John Humphreys picking up the slack. Kobrine, a senior, and Humphreys, a sophomore, provide CdM with a unique inside-out threat due to their length and athleticism.
Basketball isn't even their top sport.
Kobrine is heading to UCLA to play volleyball, while Humphreys has an offer from Duke's football program. The two are also quality basketball players. Kobrine averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots during the four games of the CdM Beach Bash tournament, where the Sea Kings took fifth.
The next step for Humphreys, a two-way standout on the football field, is to keep working himself into basketball shape after a grueling football season.
"We're going to be going in the right direction as we get acclimated to the season," said Schachter, who expects Northwood, Beckman and University to challenge CdM for the league crown. "John is getting back to where he was last year coming in from football. He played almost every down of the football season going both ways. That's physical, but it's also mental with that fatigue."
The Sea Kings play at rival Newport Harbor in the Battle of the Bay game on Thursday, before traveling to Hawaii for the Punahou Invitational, which runs from Dec. 27-30.
Laguna Beach, which will make the jump to the Sunset League next fall, aims to close out its highly-successful Orange Coast League tenure on a high note after finishing second to Godinez last season.
"I would say we are the frontrunner," said Laguna Beach coach Bret Fleming, whose program has won the Orange Coast League title in nine of the 11 seasons the league has been in existence. "Godinez did a great job and caught us last year, so I know we'd like to come back and finish the league off well."
After a 7-0 start, the program's best in school history, Laguna Beach, No. 2 in Division 3AA, fell down to earth this week. The Breakers dropped two of their first four games in the Charlie Wilkins Memorial Tournament at Westminster High.
Regardless of the recent setbacks, though, the senior duo of 6-6 Blake Burzell and Charlie Rounaghi led Laguna Beach to its second tournament final on Saturday.
Burzell, a four-year standout, has continued to grow as a passer, complimenting his status as the team's top scoring threat. Burzell, who is also one of the top right-handed pitchers in Southern California, led the Breakers to the Grizzly Invitational title on Dec. 2, earning tournament MVP honors.
For a Laguna Beach offensive attack predicated on ball movement, Rounaghi has proved just as valuable. The guard is averaging just under 10 assists per game on the season, with his coach pressuring him to be more aggressive as a scorer.
Costa Mesa, under first-year coach Mike Ofer, has two junior guards who can score in Nico Dasca and Osman Hefner, while senior guard Cameron Jones leads Estancia. The rival Mustangs and Eagles should battle for third place in the Orange Coast League.
Pacifica Christian Orange County will be another Newport Beach team to keep an eye on as the season unfolds, with the immediate fate of two 6-7 star transfers still up in the air.
Sophomore Judah Brown, a transfer from Bermuda Dunes Desert Christian Academy, and junior Solomon Davis, a transfer from Temecula Rancho Christian, were expected to make a significant impact for the Tritons this season, alongside sophomore sensation Dominick Harris. Both transfers have been deemed ineligible by the CIF Southern Section for violating Bylaw 510 of undue influence, however, and Pacifica Christian (4-6), No. 9 in Division 5AAA, has stumbled out of the gates.
Coach Jeff Berokoff said he's hoping to learn of the final decision on an appeal with the CIF State office soon. If the appeal is denied, Brown and Davis will be eligible for the 2018-19 season.
One silver lining to the team's slow start has been the stellar play of Harris, a 6-3 guard that Berokoff calls "the best scorer in Orange County." Harris led the Tritons to the CIF Southern Section Division 6 final last season in the program's varsity debut.
"He's averaging 30 points a game, rebounding about five or six a game and passing the ball really well," said Berokoff of Harris, who has offers from Stetson University, Cal Baptist University, Abilene Christian University, Eastern Washington University, UC Irvine, the University of Denver, the University of Portland, the University of Pennsylvania, UTEP and UC Riverside. "He's done it all for us. He's been asked to do everything. That's really hard to do, but he's been stepping up."
Pacifica Christian, which is in the San Joaquin League this season, hosts Sage Hill in a nonleague game on Friday. Sage Hill is one of two local programs from the Academy League, the other is Brethren Christian.
In the Golden West League, Ocean View returns as the favorite — no surprise considering it brings back eight players from the team that went undefeated in league play last season.
Headlining the Seahawks' cast of returning players is the senior tandem of 6-9 Mehkel Harvey and Paul Head. Ocean View, No. 10 in Division 3AA, advanced to the Lodinez Tournament final at Loara High.
"We lean heavily on Mehkel and Paul," said Tim Walsh, who shares the Ocean View coaching duties with Roger Holmes. "Those are the guys that really drive the bus for us, but we're also confident in guys like Seth Mishler, Vincent Caiazzo and Nathaniel Washington to step up and do what they need to do."