The closest thing to a mythical Orange County basketball championship will occur at 8:30 tonight when Mater Dei High School (12-0) faces Capistrano Valley (11-1) for the championship of the Orange Holiday tournament at the Hutton Sports Center at Chapman College.
Since the stellar teams are in different leagues and divisions, they have few occasions to run into each other . . . on the basketball court, anyway.
The last time they formally met was four years ago, when the Monarchs defeated the Cougars for the championship of the Valencia Tournament.
The margin of victory? Monarch Coach Gary McKnight says it was 18 points; Cougar Coach Mark Thornton has a painful memory of something like 23.
“It seemed like at least 35,” he said.
Thornton said it’s no coincidence the teams have not played a regular-season game in ages.
“I did my schedule around them,” he said. “I’m not stupid . But this year, I felt we had the team to play them, and I wanted to play ‘em.”
Though they haven’t played in a while, these teams are quite well-acquainted.
The schools are 15 miles and four cities apart, but tonight’s game will be almost a family affair.
McKnight and Thornton have been friends for years, since they coached lower-level teams at San Clemente and Dana Hills.
The coaches live about a mile apart in Mission Viejo and their children are friends--and, appropriately, rivals, too.
When two of the undefeated teams in Mission Viejo youth basketball face off this weekend, McKnight’s 9-year-old son, Clay, will be on one side and the two Thornton boys, 8-year-old Brad and 10-year-old Todd, will be on the other.
Many of the players on the Mater Dei and Capistrano Valley varsities grew up playing basketball together.
The Cougars’ Nathan Call, Shawn Reed and Todd Beightol played from fourth to eighth grade on a traveling team with Monarchs John Mounce and Mike O’Connor. Their coach was McKnight.
The whole group is planning a reunion next summer in Hawaii at a home owned by another alumnus of the youth team, San Clemente’s Gary Wade, McKnight said.
But the Monarchs and Cougars already staged another sort of reunion last summer when both varsities combined into a single, 10-player unit with co-coaches to win a 32-team international summer tournament in Phoenix.
Suffice to say, neither team will have many secrets from its opponent tonight.
Unlike most opposing coaches preparing for an important game, McKnight and Thornton have chatted on the phone several times this week.
“We’ve been kidding each other,” McKnight said. “I’ll say, ‘I don’t think we can play with you.’ And he’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you mean. I don’t think we can play with you. ‘ “
Both coaches are hoping none of their players momentarily forget the difference between us and them .
“All the kids are good friends,” Thornton said. “I just hope that when they get on the court they’ll become enemies. His players are neat kids, but we’ve got to hope we can beat them.”
Fate has not been kind to Sonora’s basketball team thus far this season. In eight years under Coach Paul Bottiaux, the Raiders have been among the best teams in North Orange County.
In the last three years, Sonora has twice advanced to the Southern Section 2-A basketball championship game, winning the title in 1983.
But this season has been a different story. The Raiders have won just one game in eight outings, their worst start in Bottiaux’s tenure.
In the opening round of the Brea-Olinda tournament Thursday, the Raiders suffered a 66-59 loss to previously winless Trabuco Hills. That was particularly galling since the Mustangs are a junior varsity team representing a new school with no seniors.
The Raiders’ youthfulness explains much of their troubles.
Bottiaux is working with his youngest group of varsity players, including 10 underclassmen on a 12-player roster. Four sophomores and six juniors are seeing considerable playing time, Bottiaux said.
“We’re counting on a lot of young players,” he said. “They’re aging a lot, but we’d like to see them age a lot quicker.”
On the subject of Trabuco Hills, Gene Lloyd, Brea tournament director, said he would never have admitted the Mustangs to the tournament had he realized they were not a varsity team.
“When I talked with their athletic director, no one was referring to them as a JV team,” Lloyd said. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have invited them until next year.
“I just don’t feel that a JV team has any place in a varsity tournament. If I had wanted to do that, I could have put my own (JV) team in there.”
Lloyd also questioned Trabuco Hills’ decision to label itself a junior varsity.
“They are senior-less, but that doesn’t mean they’re a JV team,” Lloyd said. “It’s just a philosophical thing. I’m sure there are other (varsity) teams in the county who are just as young.”
Like many others, Lloyd was not aware that the Southern Section had granted a request in October by Trabuco Hills Principal Bill Brand that the school’s teams be designated junior varsities in order that 14-year-old freshmen could participate.
Of Sonora’s loss to the Mustangs, Lloyd said, “Quite frankly, I think it’s kind of embarrassing to Sonora to have a JV team beat them . . . when Sonora might be just as young.”
Despite the emergence of a fine Garden Grove team (8-3), Bolsa Grande is hoping this season will provide a chance for its first Garden Grove League title in 25 years. Barring injuries to the Matadors (6-4), Coach Tony Lipold may have good reason to expect a contender.
Guard Nam Cao, a 5-foot 7-inch junior, was named the Canyon tournament’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 20 points and getting 10 assists in Saturday’s 78-56 victory in the championship game against Esperanza.
Teammate Joe Small, a 6-2 sophomore who moved to the area from Westchester High School last year, is averaging 16 points and 13 rebounds per game. Center Tom Afdahl, a 6-2 senior, has averaged 11 rebounds. Lipold said the Matadors have managed to outrebound all but two opponents, Lakewood and Mission Viejo.