COACH: Alan Bennett, 2nd season LAST SEASON: 8-13; 2nd in league, 5-5
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Three starters return for Birmingham as the Braves expect to improve on last season's finish. Senior forward Kevin Horton (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) averaged 10.5 points and nine rebounds a game and senior point guard Chet Chea (5-9), a third-year starter, will lead the Birmingham offense. The third returning starter is senior center Ignacio Esteva (6-6), who averaged six rebounds in '89-90 and is the team's most improved player, according to Bennett. Glenn Lyles (6-0), who played sparingly last season, has won a starting job at guard. Senior David Garden (6-5) from Taft, one of two transfers, has junior-varsity experience and will start at center-forward. Sophomore Carl Conston (6-1), from Westchester, will fill in at guard. Bennett has a host of juniors to round out the team: forward Booker Montgomery (6-2), guards Anthony Sarkissian (5-8) and Raymark Strong (5-8) and forward Kiki Esparza (6-3), who didn't play last year.
OUTLOOK: Despite the solid returning nucleus, Bennett remains only cautiously optimistic. "We're gonna be stronger than last year, but so is everybody else," he said. "It's not exactly a rebuilding year, but we are still learning to play together."
COACH: Howard Levine, 5th season LAST SEASON: 22-4; 1st in league, 10-0
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Grant will have to develop its game quickly if it wants to repeat as league champion, Levine said. "I haven't been happy with this team since mid-summer." Grant lost four of its top six players to graduation, but Levine will start five seniors to fill the void. Forward Brunell Mori (6-4) and point guard Eric Brown return as starters, but the leading scorers and rebounders are gone. Forward Sean McMahan (6-3) and guards Jason Astor (5-10) and Bradford Williamson (6-1) are the newcomers to the starting lineup. Senior guards David Knight (6-1) and Tyler Bucman (5-10) will see a lot of playing time, as will juniors Wayne Carlyle (6-5) at forward and Renaldo DeJesus (5-10) at point guard.
OUTLOOK: Levine coached a runaway league champion last season but expects a close race in '90-91. "I don't think our league is a pushover at all," he said. "Sylmar and Poly certainly will knock us off if we don't start playing together. Many people are probably saying that Grant has it made. No way, it's just not that way this year."
COACH: Jay Werner, 3rd season
LAST SEASON: 2-19; 4th in league, 1-9 PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Parrots suffered through a dismal season last year, but Coach Werner is hoping to turn things around. Senior forward Arnold Beck (6-1) is the only returning starter, and guard Nick Aldaba (5-7), a part-time starter, will have full-time responsibilities in his senior year. The players up from the junior varsity have given Werner renewed confidence. The Parrots' junior varsity finished second in the league last year, and Werner is hoping the winning spirit in those eight players who have moved up will carry over. Up from the lower level are seniors Serviero Fonseca (6-2), Arnold Morales (6-0) and Sergio Vargas (5-11), who will round out the starting five. Senior center-forward Steve McCann (6-4) also is expected to make a big impact. Werner thinks that the overall height of the team will be the Parrots' biggest barrier. "Our big men will have to play their opponents equally and then I think we'll do OK."
OUTLOOK: Enthusiasm and intellect are expected to carry the day. "I truly believe that we will be battling for a playoff spot this year," Werner said. "What we do lack in superstars, we make up for in bright players. They get it the first time you tell them something and they do it well."
Sherman Oaks (CES)
COACH: Mac Becker, 7th season LAST SEASON: 8-16; 4th in Northeastern League, 3-9
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Sherman Oaks (CES) enters its seventh season of basketball in the and its first in the Pac-8 Conference. Sherman Oaks spent the past two seasons in the Northeast League after five years and an 80-5 record in magnet-school leagues. Becker will miss Cleve McWright, who graduated, and his 18.3 points per game. Junior Raleigh Henderson (6-5), who averaged 10 rebounds and 11 points, also will be missed for at least the entire preseason. Henderson broke both of his wrists five weeks ago after coming down on his hands after a slam dunk. There are no seniors on this team, but there are 15 players on the squad, six more than Becker has ever had at Sherman Oaks. Sophomore John Cannon (6-3) returns at starting forward, as does junior Mitch Shenkin (5-8) at guard. Juniors Chris Batiste (6-3), Khalif Muhammed (6-2), and Kyle Augustus (5-8) round out the starters. Junior Todd Mitchell (6-0), who did not play last year, will share time with Agustus at point guard.
OUTLOOK: Reality tempers optimism at Sherman Oaks. "If we can play .500 ball in our first year in the Pac-8, we'd be pretty satisfied," Becker said. "We are a year away from our true potential."
COACH: Larry Link, 2nd season
LAST SEASON: 11-12; 3rd in league, 4-6 PLAYERS TO WATCH: Sylmar lost eight players to graduation and senior starter Jason Burd moved to the East Coast, so Link, in his second year, is starting from scratch. The Spartans' starting five will probably be last year's junior-varsity starters, who had a "big problem scoring," according to Link. In Sylmar's favor: Its top eight players are taller than six feet, which is more than any other team in the Pac-8 can say. But inexperience has Link worried. "My fingers are crossed. I don't know what to expect," Link said. Senior point guard Kim Shostle (6-1) will run the offense. Brandon McBride (6-4) and Jeff Roesche (6-2) will provide strength inside. Tom Facer (6-1), Dave Christ (6-2) and Derrick Williams (6-1) will also play at forward. Desmond Briggs (6-1), a senior transfer from Bell-Jeff, and Harold Agustus (6-1) will fill in as swingmen.
OUTLOOK: Link is cautiously optimistic. "I think we'll end up having a better team than last year, but I'm not sure that translates into more wins," he said. "We don't have the talent we had last year, but I think we'll play better together."