At the beginning of the basketball season it appeared Monte Vista should just order a Grossmont League 3-A championship banner early and avoid the season-ending rush.
Returning for the Monarchs (8-0 in league play last year) were 6-11 center Joe McNaull and guard/forward Jeff Polinsky, two of the league's top three scorers. Meanwhile, second-place Helix had lost center John Pressler, the league's scoring leader, to graduation. Third-place Granite Hills lost Coach Jeff Armstrong, who had turned around a once-awful program but has moved on to St. Augustine. And El Capitan, the fourth-place team, figured to struggle again.
That left last-place Mt. Miguel (2-21 and 0-8 last year).
So as league play begins this week, who has the best pre-league record? Mt. Miguel (10-4), not Monte Vista (8-6).
"I think they're the team to beat because they have more kids who want to play, and they have (guard) Domingo Rivera," said Zach Peck, Monte Vista's coach. "Domingo is very unselfish, can get the ball up court and can penetrate."
Rivera is averaging 12 points but is more valuable in his role running the offense.
And if there is one person who can appreciate Rivera's attributes, it's Peck, who entered the season with untested guards.
"We're struggling," Peck said. "We play real well against teams that can't put man pressure on us. But we just don't have the personnel who can handle the ball like we did last year."
That has made it tougher than expected for the Monarchs despite the presence of Polinsky, who is averaging 26 points, and McNaull, averaging 18.3.
"I didn't think we were going to be that strong," Peck said. "I always try to remain very subdued. I don't think we're as good as a lot of people thought we would be."
All of this should create an interesting matchup when Mt. Miguel and its pressure defense travel to Monte Vista Friday.
Top contenders: Monte Vista (17-4 in 1988-89), Mt. Miguel (2-21).
Surprise potential: Helix (17-6).
Hoping for improvement: Granite Hills (17-8), El Capitan (9-16).
Game of the year: Mt. Miguel at Monte Vista (Friday) and Monte Vista at Mt. Miguel (Feb. 6). These should decide league title, unless Helix can pull an upset somewhere along the way.
The man: Polinsky gets the nod over teammate McNaull. Although McNaull is a dominating force inside, Polinsky is the guy who takes the pressure off the big man. The key to success for Monte Vista will be whether Polinsky can take the pressure off McNaull by improving his ball handling and scoring from the outside. "He's our clutch player," Peck said.
Shoes to fill? With Polinsky and McNaull back, the shoes are filled.
Others to watch: Shannon LaFever of Mt. Miguel is beginning to establish himself as an offensive force. He was academically ineligible part of last season but averaged 15 points per game. This year, LaFever's grades and shooting are just fine, and he's averaging 26 points per game.
Making the grade: When Bill Sullivan took over at Mt. Miguel last season, his biggest problem was keeping players in the classroom. As a result, seven Matador players missed all or part of the season. This year, Sullivan has his players performing well on the court and in class. After two grading periods, the Matadors have not lost a player to academic problems.
Two make a first: With McNaull signing with San Diego State, and Polinsky signing with U.S. International, the two players have done something that has never happened to a Grossmont Conference school--two teammates going to NCAA Division I schools.
Overachievers anonymous: Helix Coach John Singer knew he'd have a young and relatively starless team this season. But who would have figured these unknowns would be 7-4 entering league play? Last season the Highlanders relied on center John Pressler, who graduated, and his league-leading 21.8 scoring average. This season, the Highlanders are spreading the scoring around and having success.
Centers of attention: Monte Vista isn't the only team relying on a solid season from its center. Scott Goergen is averaging 20.6 points per game for Granite Hills, and Helix is becoming even more dangerous with the improved play of 6-5 center Gary Walton. In his first five games, Walton averaged five points. In his past five he is averaging 16, including 31 in a 64-63 loss to Valhalla Friday.