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THE PREPS : Whittier Christian Might Have Company at the Top This Season

Times Staff Writer

After almost a decade of domination, Whittier Christian High School boys’ basketball seems headed for a downswing in the Olympic League this season.

Should Herald fans worry? Don’t sweat it.

Although Erik Martin, the team’s 6-foot 5-inch all-everything forward, has graduated, and the Heralds have a new coach in Bob Brown, Whittier Christian should compensate with improved height, better depth and six returning lettermen.

The Heralds’ greatest strength? Their winning tradition. In the past 8 years, Whittier Christian has won seven league championships, though last year the team shared the title with Orange Lutheran.

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Still, with all this, Brown said he wouldn’t call his team the league favorite.

“I’d be real hesitant to say that,” Brown said. “There’s four teams besides us that can win the league this year.”

Most league coaches agree. If one thing’s changed with the Olympic League this year, it is that the league is much better balanced than in years past.

Along with Whittier Christian, Orange Lutheran, Valley Christian, Ontario Christian and Brethren are considered close contenders.

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Santa Margarita, in its second year of operation, joins the Olympic League as a dark horse after compiling an 18-2 record as an independent team last season. Capistrano Valley Christian is said to be much-improved, though probably not enough to contend.

Southern California Christian, which won only one Olympic League game in the past 2 seasons, joins the newly formed and less competitive Arrowhead League.

“I really wish we were still in,” Southern California Christian Coach Mike Murphy said. “We’ve been beaten up in the Olympic League for the last 3 years. Now we’re so much better, I feel we could compete.”

Orange Lutheran Coach Jerry Simmons, who predicted his team had a chance to defeat Whittier Christian for the title at the beginning of last season, is confident again.

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“I think we’ll be tougher than most think we’ll be,” he said.

Although Ontario Christian, which brings back all five starters from last year’s team, is said to be one of the league’s top contenders, Ontario Christian Coach Barry Miedema doesn’t see his team meeting that description.

“There’s Whittier Christian, there’s Orange Lutheran, there’s Valley Christian, there’s Brethren . . . then there’s us just sitting down there being the doormat,” Miedema said.

“We have a lot back, but we weren’t any good last year anyway.” Last season, Ontario Christian finished 2-10 and sixth-place in the seven-team league.

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Brethren’s strength may lie in senior transfer Doug Grove, a 6-3 forward from Colorado. Grove averaged 25 points a game last season. He joins two returning starters, Gavin Edmundson and Todd Mitchell.

Here’s a closer look at the Orange County schools in the Olympic and Arrowhead Leagues:

CAPISTRANO VALLEY CHRISTIAN--The Eagles have a new coach in Jeff Tuckness, who took over for Jim Sargent when he took an assistant coaching position at Biola College.

Although Capistrano Valley Christian lost 2-year starters in forward Ty Carney and point guard Chris Phillips to graduation, the Eagles expect an improved team with the return of starters Brett Biegert, a 5-11 senior shooting guard; senior Toby Lenz, a 6-foot point guard, and junior Jason Rodarmel, a 6-3 forward.

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The Eagles aren’t tall, deep or very quick, but the team has good shooting ability. Tuckness will go with a half-court offense.

ORANGE LUTHERAN--Simmons says his goal this season is to win the league title outright. And Simmons wants to win it running.

“Our goal is to score 20 points a quarter,” he said. “And we’ll try to reduce (their opponents) to 50 or 60 points a game.”

Athletic ability is the Lancers’ main strength. Jason Neben, Orange Lutheran’s talented option quarterback and long jumper, is back at off-guard. Neben averaged 11.4 points last season. Two-year starter Daryl Cole returns at forward.

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Simmons says Pat Bagatourian, a 6-2 center, is as aggressive inside as anyone. The question mark on the team will be 6-foot freshman Luke Aucoin, whom Simmons will start at point guard. Why start a freshman?

“I didn’t find anyone else that could do the job.” Simmons said.

SANTA MARGARITA--This is the team every coach is talking about--especially when talking about the future.

In only its second year of operation, (the oldest players are sophomores), Santa Margarita could have a very successful team next year, if not sooner.

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The Eagles will start two players, Chris Hacker and Jeff Layne, who are 6-7.

It doesn’t stop there. Sean Stevenson, whom Eagle Coach Richard Schaaf describes as “our Kurt Rambis-type of kid,” and freshman Dan Bathey are both 6-4.

The smallest starter? Freshman Ryan Travis. He’s 5-10 and--like the rest of the team--growing fast.

“It’s funny, when these kids aren’t at school, they’re always sleeping,” Schaaf said. “I ask, ‘Why are you guys always sleeping?’ And they say, ‘We’re growing , Coach.’ ”

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Schaaf, who will co-coach the team this season with Roger Holmes. Schaaf said after a free-lance schedule last season, he’s ready for the stability of league play.

“Last year was tough,” he said. “We played other freshman teams from all over Orange County. It was a good year, but without a league, it’s tough to assess really how you’re doing.”

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CHRISTIAN--At this time last season, Murphy was all gloom and doom. “We have no depth, no experience and no talent,” he said last November.

But things have brightened for the Flames this season. The top six players from last year’s squad are back, and most have grown an inch or two.

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Projected starters are: Shawn Wiltshire, a 6-6 junior forward; Steve Ackad, a 6-5 junior center; Kenny Cross, a 6-2 senior shooting guard; Eddie Felten, a 6-foot senior point guard, and Jeff Martin, a 6-4 senior forward.

Although Martin may be out for the next 3 weeks with a broken thumb, and only two back-up players are on the bench, Murphy is optimistic his team can do well this season.

Why? Because Southern California Christian may be the best-conditioned team around. In addition to playing an hour a day and lifting weights 3 days a week during the off-season, all 7 of the Flame players participated in another sport this fall: cross-country.

“They hated every minute of it, but they didn’t have a choice,” Murphy said. “I’m the cross-country coach.”

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WHITTIER CHRISTIAN--Losing Martin would be a blow to any team. In addition to being a 3-year starter, Martin led the county in field goal percentage (67%), and had among the top averages in scoring (26 points) and rebounding (15).

“Of course he is impossible to replace, but I think our team will be more balanced,” Brown said. “I think we have the people who can pick up and spread the burden throughout.”

The Heralds have six lettermen returning, including two starters: Scott Ferguson, a 6-7 center, and Paul McKinley, a 6-4 forward.

Senior Matt Riehm has been moved from off-guard to point guard, a move which Brown feels may really help the team. Said Brown: “Matt’s really responded confidence-wise and athleticly. He will be a key element for us.”

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Other projected starters include senior off guard Kealii Takahashi, senior forward Rob Diaz, and junior Joe Konstantarakis, a 6-5 forward.

“Our strength is probably our excellent defensive intensity,” Brown said. “And the guys really work well together as a team. Especially on the fast break. They look real good.”

HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL PREVIEWS SMALL SCHOOLS 1987-88 Overall Record in Parentheses

SCHOOL ’88-'89 COMMENT Capistrano Valley Christian (11-10) Three starters return , good shooting team. Orange Lutheran (16-7) Quick team has Olympic League’s best athletes. Santa Margarita (18-2) The young team is the Olympic League’s tallest. Southern Cal. Christian (3-15) Should find success in Arrowhead League. Whittier Christian (17-7) Lost Erik Martin, but has everything else.

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