Fans, Yearbook Attest to Artesia High's Basketball Pride : Playoffs: Emerging powerhouse prepares to play Fremont of Sunnyvale for the Division II state title in Oakland.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Artesia High School, serious about its basketball program, printed a team yearbook this season and titled it "On the Rise."

The California Interscholastic Federation champion Pioneers have fulfilled that prophesy. They are 28-2 and will play Fremont of Sunnyvale (29-3) for the Division II state title at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Oakland Coliseum.

The Artesia yearbook includes profiles of Coach Wayne Merino, five assistant coaches and Phil Sandoval, the basketball information director.

An introduction gushes with praise for Merino, and included in the book are profiles of the varsity players. A page is devoted to All-American Ed O'Bannon ("ED OHHHHHHHH BAN-NON!" as Sandoval, also the public address announcer, enthuses). O'Bannon, perhaps the most intensely recruited prep player in the nation, will very likely choose a college from among UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Nevada Las Vegas, Syracuse and LSU.

Also in the yearbook are rosters and team photos of the junior varsity and freshmen teams, powerhouses themselves.

The ads in the book--for construction companies, dentists, a chiropractor, a restaurant and a video store--were sold by the players and their parents.

Sandoval said money has been raised from snack-bar sales at games, drawings and faculty basketball games with the Los Angeles Rams. The Artesia players also work as parking attendants at UCLA football games, he said.

Merino sat in his office this week and talked about enthusiasm in the school and community for his team.

"Three buses are going up," he said. "They'll take our stats people, the cheerleaders, boosters and band. The team is going to fly up."

That will cost about $3,000, he said.

The Pioneers are no strangers to jet travel. In December they went to New Jersey for a tournament. They saw New York City and also took a train to Washington, D.C.

"Times have changed, that's almost commonplace now," Merino said, thinking back to the days when high school teams rarely traveled out of state. "The trips give the kids pride in their school."

One college coach good-naturedly refers to the 5-foot-5 Merino as a Napoleon. And it appears that Merino is building a basketball empire. The JV team was 18-8 this season, the freshman team was 24-2.

He talks in the yearbook of "developing the student-athlete," "cultivating one-and-one relationships" and trying to make the program "a better product all the time."

"We try to run it like a Mater Dei or Poly," he said, referring to the well-known basketball powers in Santa Ana and Long Beach. "We're trying to do as classy a job as possible."

Merino, 29, seems almost like a college coach in his highly organized approach, but he said he has no immediate ambition to become one.

"I like what I'm doing," he said. "It's exciting to see the kids develop and mature over four years. It's exciting knowing that some of them will go on and use basketball to get an education, and it's exciting to see kids do well on the court and become good people who are polite and well-mannered. That's more important to me than winning games."

There are coaches who are critical of Merino's methods. Some have suggested that he recruits players, which he denies. No allegation has been substantiated.

"It's always easy for people to like you when you're losing," Merino said. "Any time you have success you're going to have jealousy and resentment," Merino said. "That goes with the territory.

"If the administration likes what we're doing and the kids like what we're doing, that's what's important. We're just regular guys working hard, doing a job."

As a student at Mater Dei, Merino played in the band (clarinet), not on the basketball team.

He started coaching when he worked for the recreation department in Santa Ana.

"It took off from there," said Merino, who at the time was a student at Cal State Fullerton.

He coached church teams, intramural teams, traveling teams, summer all-star teams.

"Before I was a varsity coach, I coached 150 games a year and I loved it," said Merino, who teaches math. "I loved interacting with the kids. I enjoyed seeing good things happen to them, seeing them get to travel, seeing basketball keep them off the streets."

Merino was an assistant coach for two years at Fountain Valley High and three years at Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach before coming to Artesia in 1987.

"I thought when I hired him he'd be one of the fine young coaches in the area," said Jim Nielsen, former Mira Costa coach who is now coach at North Torrance High. "He's one of those basketball junkies. He worked his tail off."

Merino and O'Bannon, who transferred from Verbum Dei High in Los Angeles, arrived at Artesia at the same time.

"They sure changed things around quick," said La Mirada Coach Roger Williams.

The Pioneers have won three consecutive Suburban League titles. In 1987-88, when O'Bannon was a sophomore, they were 17-11 and reached the second round of the playoffs. Last season they were 22-7, losing to Dominguez in the finals.

Artesia has vaulted into national recognition since Merino and O'Bannon came, but the Pioneers were not pushovers before that.

Under Gordon Ackerman, who had been the coach for 28 years, the Pioneers were 502-244. In his last season, 1986-87, with Tony Farmer (now at the University of Nebraska), the Pioneers won the Suburban League title. In the early 1980s they had Tom Tolbert, who now plays for the Golden State Warriors.

What is evident about Merino's players, other than their talent, is their humility.

"My kids have no animosity when they play them," said La Mirada's Williams. "The kids he has are really classy. That may be a reflection on Ed. Their heads could be sticking out of the gym. You'd assume they'd have big egos, but it's nothing that's noticeable."

Said Merino, "We have good kids with good family backgrounds."

Ed O'Bannon averages 25 points and 10 rebounds a game, but the 6-9 senior forward/center is not the whole show.

Senior guard Chris Thompson averages 10 points and five assists a game.

Junior guard DeAndre Austin averages 15 points a game.

Young players play prominent roles: Charles O'Bannon, Ed's brother, averages 10 points and 5 rebounds. Jae Park, a 6-7 sophomore, is a dependable rebounder. And 6-10 freshman Avondre Jones gets about four blocked shots a game.

Charles O'Bannon, Jones and Park are veterans of summer league play. "They have a world of experience for their age, (but it's still) amazing they're as good as they are," Merino said.

Merino said that although Ed O'Bannon gets most of the attention, the other players don't mind.

"There's no way anyone can be jealous of him," Merino said. "Ed is such a good person, very quiet and humble. The kids love him."

Charles O'Bannon agreed: "I don't think they're jealous of him. They're happy for him. And when college coaches come around to see Ed, they get to see them too."

Charles, 15, who in the last year has grown four inches to 6 feet 5, patterns himself after his brother, although he is more outgoing off the court.

"I try to make the same moves he does," Charles said. "I idolize the way he plays basketball. And he's helped me be a better student and to respect my elders."

The O'Bannons are like all the other Pioneers, Merino said, a "pleasure to be around."

There was a knock on the door, and the players filed in to join their coach for a meeting.

As they did, it was clear that this was not just a team, but a happy family.

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