It’s not hard to pin down the reasons why Newport Christian High School has reached the championship game of the Southern Section Small Schools boys’ basketball tournament, scheduled for 7:30 Friday night at Pepperdine University’s Firestone Fieldhouse.
The Newport Christian team that will face Bel-Air Prep of Los Angeles is long on experience, tall at center and deep on reserves.
Four of the five starters are seniors who have been groomed for this moment since they were in the seventh grade together.
One of those players, Jeremy Clark, is 6-feet-7 and has developed a nifty turnaround jump shot to go with his excellent rebounding skills. He averages 15 points and 12 rebounds a game.
Another senior, John Bahnsen, has learned much about scoring. In the four playoff games he has scored 37, 33, 22, and 32 points. He’s averaging 24 points for the season.
Bahnsen and Clark will be joined in the starting lineup by senior forward Wayne Everett, who averages 16 points, eight rebounds and five steals; senior point guard Mark Carrega, and junior forward David Humber, who averages nine rebounds.
“They’ve been playing together so long, it’s really nice to have this happen to them,” first-year Coach John Diebold said. “They were under .500 the last two seasons, but they’ve worked very hard; they’ve really come together.”
Bahnsen, a 5-11 guard, is the player that league coaches say is the key man.
“If he is on, they are on,” said Liberty Christian Coach Rudy Sass, whose team lost twice to Newport Christian in Academy League play.
But Clark is the player who sets Newport Christian apart among schools in the Small Schools division, which generally have enrollments of fewer than 200.
“He’s not just tall,” said Dave Bartelt, who coaches at rival Cal Lutheran. “He can really play. He’s an excellent rebounder, has a nice shot, and he is cool. You can’t rattle him.”
Newport Christian also has the rare good fortune among small schools of having depth.
“They have eight or nine players who can play,” Bartelt said. “Most small schools have two or three basketball players and a couple of other good athletes to fill out their teams.”
So with all this wonderful experience, an accomplished center who is five inches taller than anyone on the opposition, and plenty of depth, Newport Christian has made it to the final for the first time since the school opened in 1972. Unseeded when the tournament began, the team is now considered the favorite to hang the championship banner.
The Conquerors (21-2) advanced by defeating Harbor Christian, 103-69, in the first round; Bethel Christian of Lancaster, 87-79, in the second, and top-seeded Hesperia Christian, 66-61, in the third.
“Everybody felt if we could get past that hump, we had as good a chance as anyone to make it all the way,” said the Rev. Tony Curto, principal of Newport Christian.
The Conquerors then defeated Ribet Christian, 72-60, in the semifinals.
Bel-Air Coach Mike Whiting acknowledges that Newport Christian is on a roll, but his team won’t exactly be slouching into Firestone Fieldhouse.
Four of his starters are seniors who also have played together for several years, and even without a player taller than 6-2, the Bruins breezed through the first three games of the playoffs.
Junior guard Ahmad Clayton leads the team in scoring with 16 points a game. But Whiting likes to point out that six players have scored at least 20 points during the playoffs.
The other starters are 6-2 center Jason Plazola, who will have a big job trying to contain Clark. The forwards are Ron Jensen and Josh Kovac, and Zaid Al-Hakim is the other starting guard.
In the playoffs, Bel-Air (19-8) defeated Pacific Shores, 109-42; Bloomington Christian, 59-50; Grace Community, 74-56, and Pilgrim, 66-52.
Whiting uses a menagerie of offenses and defenses and says the team’s flexibility is its strength. He likes its determination too.
“I wouldn’t dive against any of these kids for a loose dollar bill,” he said.
And at stake Friday night is a state championship.