Coach Greg Herrick and his Cleveland High basketball team, winners of 18 straight and 22 of 23 this season, continue to roll right along.
The Cavaliers are The Times' No. 2 team in the City, the second-seeded team in the 4-A playoffs, which enter the quarterfinal round tonight, and are averaging around 82 points a game.
And they have a mission.
There's a principle at stake here. Herrick's motivation is about as subtle as a slap in the face, which is exactly what he feels he's been getting for too long. Win it for Cleveland. Win it for Herrick. Win it for the Valley.
It's a bad case of claustrophobia, and the inner-city is closing in.
But given the addage, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Herrick would just as soon keep trying to beat 'em, especially defending champion and top-ranked Crenshaw. He would have to get to the finals to get the Cougars, but a win tonight at home at 7:30 against Banning and a Manual Arts victory over Fremont in another game would also give him a chance to show off the Cavaliers.
Getting recognition from people outside the Valley has been Herrick's problem for a few years now, and this seems like as good a year as any to do it.
"I know, and other people who know basketball, say we're as good as anybody in the City," Herrick says. "Every time I go to a meeting (assistant coach) Joe Weakley from Crenshaw says, 'Who have you played? Who's in your league?' In the back of their minds they say we're 22-1, but they say we wouldn't be 22-1 if we played down there (the inner-city). That's unfounded."
Crenshaw is inner-city basketball. The Cougars (18-0) have been handling most opponents this season like garbage men do trash cans. Grab firmly, toss around and move on to the next one. Nine of their last 10 victories have included triple-digit scoring, including a 101-43 victory of Dorsey in the first round last Friday.
"If that's what impresses them, so be it," Herrick said. "I think that's a very shallow statistic, and we're averging 82 points a game."
Cleveland heads into tonight's game with some big numbers of its own. At the forefront is the win streak (the only loss was to Dominguez of the Southern Section, 63-58, Dec. 13), a 101-66 first-round win over Locke and seven returning lettermen from last season's team, which was 20-1 before being upset by Fremont in the first round of the playoffs.
The standout is Trevor Wilson, a 6-7 junior forward who is averging 24 points a game this season. The rest of the starting lineup is solid and all seniors, with guard Tyrone Mitchell (22 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds against Locke), 6-3 forward Anthony Kidd (already verbally committed to Washington State), 6-6 center Andre Washington (averging 14 points a game) and guard Kevin Stafford.
With all that, Herrick says this team is the best he's ever had in five previous years at Cleveland, including the 1981 and '82 teams that had Kevin Holmes (DePaul) and Keith Morrison (Washington State) and won back-to-back 3-A championships.
History also shows that a Cleveland-Banning matchup in a key situation is nothing new. A win by Herrick, though, would be. He's lost in the first round of the playoffs and in the semifinals of the Banning Tournament last season, but both of those games were at Banning.
"The year they won the City title, two years ago, we were a fourth-place team in the Valley 4-A League with a team practically of all sophomores, the same one's that start for us now," he said. "We had a nine-point lead at the end of the third quarter, and they came back to beat us.
"We've never played them outside the Banning High School gymnasium. I'm not going to say here that we'll win, but it will be a different story. They'll be the ones having to deal with the strange exteriors and the 2 1/2-hour bus ride and the rubbery legs from all that."
The Pilots are led by a couple seniors, guard Eric Cooper (24 points a game) and forward Joe Johnson (16). Cooper was the Most Valuable Player in the Banning Tournament.
Meanwhile, Crenshaw, which beat Washington by a combined score of 210-134 in two meetings during the Central League season, will host the 14-9 Generals in another 4-A quarterfinal game. The other games have Hamilton at Carson and Belmont at Manual Arts.
Valley representation is hardly a problems in the 3-A games. Third-seeded San Pedro meets Reseda at the Sports Arena in a 4:30 p.m. precede to the Clippers' game with the Seattle SuperSonics, while South Gate is at Fairfax, Granada Hills is at Wilson and Van Nuys hosts Jefferson.
After having a bye in the first round, the top-seeded Locke girls' team, opens post-season play in the 4-A Divison by hosting Banning, a six-point winner over Westchester Friday. In other games, Westchester is at fourth-seeded Fremont, Washington hosts No. 3 Manual Arts and Dorsey is at Kennedy, the second seed.
Crenshaw, the top seed in the girls' 3-A play and coming off a 41-point win over Bell, hosts South Gate, while San Pedro is at Eagle Rock, defending champion Fairfax hosts Sylmar and Van Nuys is at Jordan.
The semifinals are Friday at the Sports Arena.
L.A. Lutheran will have to go the long route to defend its Southern Section 1-A championship this season. The Lions lost to Marshall Fundamental, 73-66, last Friday and finished tied with the Eagles for the third and final playoff spot in the Alpha League.
The teams had a special playoff game Saturday and the Lions won, 64-58, qualifying for the Southern Section playoffs for the 13th straight season.
Now, even before the first round begins, the Lions must play a wild-card game today at Crossroads in Santa Monica. The winner of that game will play Santa Ynez Friday.
In other 1-A wild-card games, Buckley is at Paraclete, the winner to play at Chadwick, and Aquinas is at Flintridge Prep, the victor to take on Montclair Prep.
In the Small Schools Division, Oakwood travels to Grace Christian for a wild-card game. Simi Lutheran plays host to Big Pine in another wild-card battle.
In a battle of Valley schools, the Chaminade girls' team travels to Hart for a 3-A Division wild-card game.