Cleveland COACH: Kevin Crider, 1st season LAST SEASON: 21-5; 1st in league, 9-1
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The best team in the Valley throughout the 1980s is once again the team to beat. But the Cavaliers are not as deep as in previous seasons. Cleveland, however, has experience in its starting five. While junior forward Brandon Martin (6-foot-4) is the team's lone returning starter, two other players saw extensive action in 1989-90, a season in which the Cavaliers advanced to the City Section 4-A Division semifinals. Kenny Collins (6-0, senior) was the backup point guard and Kayheed Murray (6-5, senior) was the third forward, and both rank among the best players in the conference. Newcomers Carlos Vasquez and Shawn Bankhead will start at off-guard and center. Vasquez (6-2, senior) and Bankhead (6-6, sophomore) played for the junior varsity last season. Vasquez ranks among the area's best perimeter shooters and Bankhead is the tallest player in the conference. Injuries might hurt the team in the short term. Senior guard Sean Gunter (5-11) suffered a broken leg five weeks ago but is expected back in early December. Martin, who averaged 13.6 points to lead all returning conference players, might be the best player in the Valley, capable of playing inside or outside. Sophomore Cory Wallace (6-0) is Cleveland's backup point guard and will play a vital role in maintaining the tempo of Cleveland's pressing defense and running offense.
OUTLOOK: If Cleveland adapts to Crider--the team's fourth coach in a little more than one year--then a third-consecutive league title is likely. Cleveland needs consistency from Collins, a transfer from Taft who struggled at times in summer-league competition. Murray and Martin give the Cavaliers the best forward combination in the area and if Bankhead continues to improve as quickly as he has over the past few months, Cleveland could again make a trip to the Sports Arena.
COACH: Bob Johnson, 13th season LAST SEASON: 17-9; 2nd in league, 8-2
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Highlanders were the only team to defeat Cleveland in league play last season and seem to have the experience and speed to pull off a repeat performance. Granada Hills has a pair of returning starters in forwards Adrian Sellers and Jerry Allen, the team's co-captains. All-league selection Sellers (6-4) averaged 11.1 points and eight rebounds and Allen (6-4) averaged 7.6 points. "Allen is great, really a good player," Johnson said. "He's improved so much from last year." Several other returning lettermen give Granada Hills the league's best depth. Lettermen include point guard Jevon Lee (6-2), off-guard Sagy Koren (5-11) and swingmen Gene Varshtak (6-3) and Ryan Cravens (6-2). Cravens was a projected starter a season ago but was academically ineligible for most of the season. "He is the best athlete on the team--he could play point guard if I asked him to," Johnson said of Cravens. Granada Hills and Taft are the most-experienced teams in the league. "We have at least eight guys who can play," Johnson said. "Depth is a definite strength." Koren (8.4 average) is a streak shooter who is capable of scoring from the perimeter.
OUTLOOK: Look for the Highlanders to maintain the breakneck pace of a season ago when they ran with everybody. "We have to be a running team because we're not tall and we can't set up," Johnson said. "We'll fire it up." Production and consistency from Lee will be critical--he replaces Times All-Valley selection Jermoine Brantley, who set school records for assists and averaged 20.2 points.
COACH: Jim Woodard, 10th season LAST SEASON: 14-11; tied for 3rd in league, 4-6
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Taft's inability to withstand pressure from quicker defenses was its Achilles' heel a season ago and improvement in that area alone could make the Toreadors a challenger for the league title. But there are other reasons to like Taft's chances. "We're deeper and much more experienced," Woodard said. "And we're much better at handling the ball." Returning starters Casey Sheahan (6-1, junior) and Cornell Hill (6-1, senior) give Taft the league's most experienced backcourt. Hill, however, has been sidelined by surgery on his right arm and might not play until December. Sheahan averaged 9.5 points as a sophomore and has improved in the off-season. "He dunks with ease and is a much more physical player than people realize," Woodard said. Taft has veterans in other areas. Eric Dafney (6-4 1/2), whose half-brother Darrin starred at Fremont two years ago, returns and starts at forward. "We'll rely on him a lot for scoring and rebounding," Woodard said. Guard Mark Walker (6-0) and forward Steve Harris (6-2 1/2) played extensively as reserves a season ago and will start as seniors. James Wade, (6-3 senior) was the most valuable player on Taft's league-champion and undefeated junior varsity and is expected to start at center-forward. Joe Snow (6-0) and Miguel Carrillo (6-2), junior varsity standouts last season, will be swingmen.
OUTLOOK: Depth and perimeter shooting are team strengths, with Sheahan and Dafney capable of dropping the long-range bombs from all over the floor. "They're the two guys we're looking to for the big numbers," Woodard said. Height, however, is a problem. "We're not as tall as we have been," Woodard said. "Rebounding is something we'll have to work very hard on. We'll have to make up for a lack of height with intensity." Last season, Taft lost four consecutive league games by four points or less. Few expect a talented and well-seasoned Taft to experience similar straits this season.
COACH: Yutaka Shimizu, 9th season LAST SEASON: 11-12; tied for 3rd in league, 4-6
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Every season, Shimizu seems to turn a bunch of junior-varsity players into a competitive team. With just two returning lettermen, the wily coach again has some hard work ahead of him. "We're still searching," Shimizu said. "We're going to play a lot of people early and see what happens." The team's best player, Athesis Harris, started at center as a sophomore two years ago but was academically ineligible last season. Harris (6-4) will again play in the post. Senior forward Alan Johnson (6-4) played last season as a reserve. Otherwise, the remaining positions in Kennedy's lineup are as up in the air as a jump ball. Joe Wyatt, (6-2 1/2 sophomore) is a probable starter at forward. Juniors Bobby Winn (6-0) and Shahien Talesh (5-9) are possible starters at off-guard and point guard.
OUTLOOK: Kennedy has no candidates at the moment to replace last season's gunner, Garret Anderson, who averaged 23 points to lead conference players in scoring. "We've been really balanced (in preseason scrimmages) and I prefer it that way," Shimizu said. "Every game it's been another guy. That makes a team harder to stop."