There is one county boys' basketball team that will be under tremendous pressure to win this season.
It has one of the county's--if not the nation's--best players, two other talented all-league returning starters, plus a transfer who was an all-league selection. Its bench is stocked with junior varsity players who are coming off a 19-6 season.
And, no, this team is not Mater Dei.
From the first tipoff to the final buzzer, Woodbridge will be watched like steak in a dog pound.
The number of victories won't matter much, but any loss will. The Warriors are expected to play their "A" game every time. Never mind that they have not won a league title outright since 1988. Never mind that Sea View League and Division II-A co-champion Santa Margarita will have another strong contender.
Never mind that Woodbridge doesn't open the season as the county's top-ranked team. That honor, again, goes to Mater Dei.
This is supposed to be Woodbridge's Southern Section championship season--signed, sealed and delivered. They have the county's leading scorer from last season in 6-foot-10 center Chris Burgess, who is headed to Duke. Other returning players include Brandon Beeson, who will attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and William Stovall, who has not picked a college. Transferring from Servite is Peter Martinelli, the true point guard Woodbridge supposedly has needed to advance deep into the playoffs.
So what if the Warriors' last section Division title (and state championship) was in 1987? And so what if they haven't gotten past Riverside North in the quarterfinals the last two seasons?
This is their time to walk the walk, because everyone around them will talk the talk.
No one knows this better than Woodbridge's coach, John Halagan. You will probably see him standing most of the season to avoid sitting on the hot seat.
Nonetheless, Halagan, starting his fifth year as head coach, said he is ready to meet the challenge head on.
"[Winning a title] is obviously going to be an issue with us this year," Halagan said. "But, quite frankly, I want high expectations placed on the program at Woodbridge. We've been in the playoffs 11 consecutive years, and we're coming off a [league] co-championship year. We've always been competitive, and there is no reason why we shouldn't continue to be.
"But should wanting to win a section title, which is certainly more attainable because of our talent level, make us put more pressure on the kids? No. If it's the last thing I do this year it's make sure we maintain a certain enjoyment level. The only pressure I will put on this group is to play as a team and play our tails off. If we fall short in those areas, that's when they're going to hear it from me."
Halagan has a notion of what could be in store for him and his team. He was an assistant at Woodbridge in 1987 and '88, when Adam Keefe was the star. In 1987 Woodbridge beat Banning in overtime for the section Division II-A title, and then defeated Richmond De Anza for the Division II state championship. In 1988, Woodbridge, then a member of the Pacific Coast League, won its last league championship.
Keefe, who was named the II-A player of the year in 1988, went on to play at Stanford and is now with the Utah Jazz.
"The whole year [1987-88] was a whirlwind," Halagan said. "I was an assistant at that time and I think this year will be similar.
"I've had a lot of people come up and say 'I bet you're glad the recruiting is over.' But as I remember [the attention] never ended. The recruiting was just another step; everybody wants to do the follow-up story. USA Today has done something and so has Sports Illustrated. It will never end.
"But I'd rather have to deal with the distractions. The best way is to meet them head on. You have to deal with it to the extent that you can't let it interfere with what you're trying to accomplish."
No coach understands what Halagan will be going through better than Mater Dei's Gary McKnight, whose Monarch teams have won six consecutive section titles and will be favored to win again.
The playing talent involved during this remarkable run has included Reggie Geary, Miles Simon, Shaun Jackson, Schea Cotton and Kevin Augustine.
McKnight doesn't worry about the down season the Monarchs will inevitably suffer, but he knows the fans of Mater Dei basketball, who consider anything less than a state championship an unsuccessful season, may not be so forgiving.
"Our expectations might be different than others," McKnight said, "but I think it's a shame when you win league and people think it's not important. I don't think people stop to enjoy the moment enough. I say preseason is to prepare for league and playoffs. Winning league is the first priority, the [section title] second and the state is 'See how far you can go.' "
In 1984 Steve Keith guided Glendale to an undefeated season and the section IV-A championship. Keith did not have a superstar like Burgess, but he did have four standout seniors and was expected to win.
"I can relate to John. It's a 'can't-win' situation," said Keith, who now coaches at Irvine. "He plays 25 games and 20 of them are not a thrill but a relief. Even if he's won, it's not the excitement of victory. You're just glad you didn't stub your toe.
"Besides the pressure of expectations, he's also got the problem of a superstar. He's got a tougher job than I did in balancing personalities. With Glendale, the roles were well-defined."
Two years ago, Sonora's Mike Murphy had the county's premier center in seven-footer Craig Clark (San Jose State). Murphy won many games with Clark in the lineup, but his teams also were upset twice in the playoffs.
"With Craig, we were never given an off night," Murphy said. "His senior year we lost three games, and all people remembered were the losses.
"What I felt that year was not pressure on me, but I felt it the whole time for Craig. He had games with 18 points, 12 boards and four blocks, and people came up afterwards and asked me why Craig doesn't do more.
"It's so unfair to those guys. I'm sure John is going through that this year. I'm sure he's excited about the year, but may be dreading the expectations. No matter what he does or they do, it won't be enough."
What will help, Halagan said, is none of his players want to be treated like stars, including Burgess. Halagan is convinced his top three returning seniors--Burgess, Beeson and Stovall--care only about winning.
"Chris Burgess is part of our program and Chris has understood that from Day 1," Halagan said. "He has obviously been a great addition to our program at Woodbridge, and he enjoys being part of the program. That's the neat thing.
"And I'll say this until I'm old and gray, and Chris is probably done playing: While he has been in our program, he has been a team-oriented guy. He has a burning desire to be the best, but he's not a self-centered kid. That's commendable for any athlete.
"We're talented enough this year that there will be games where Chris will not be our leading scorer. It could happen. Beeson is a very good player. So are Stovall and Martinelli. Chris is a part of very formidable machine, if we can get everyone going the same direction. We don't have any petty jealousies right now. If they become an issue, we're in trouble. And we can't let that happen, or we certainly won't reach our potential."
Halagan is not the only coach who may be feeling pressure to win this season.
Kevin Reynolds guided Villa Park to its best season (20-5) in 19 years in 1995-96. He has a 7-0 center and a Times all-county first-team pick in Eric Chenowith, and five other returning players.
He said he's aware of Spartan fans who believe this team can--and should--overtake Woodbridge and win a section title.
"Villa Park doesn't have the history of success the others do," Reynolds said. "Not many top schools have been to the depths we were three years ago (3-20, 0-10). And overall since 1976 we've had one above-.500 season, and that was last year.
"Nobody can put more expectations on us than we do ourselves. We feel we have the potential to be very good. We got a taste of it last year. But Chenowith is a marked man," Reynolds said. "We will not sneak up on anybody. He is no longer a potentially good player who might have a good night; he is a very good player who will have a good night every night."
At Esperanza, Coach John Cyrus has a different problem. He is replacing Mark Hill, who was dismissed despite a 25-4 season in which the Aztecs won the Sunset League title and reached the Division I-AA quarterfinals.
Hill, who coached at Esperanza for eight years, was fired because parents complained that he allegedly verbally abused players, though others say the dispute by some parents was over playing time.
It would be enough for Cyrus to be allowed time to shape the program in his vision. But with Hill being the second coach terminated at Esperanza in less than two years, there also has to be concern about the climate in which coaches work.
"I don't have time to worry what other people are thinking," Cyrus said. "I don't have time to be small. The people here have been great and helpful. The principal and athletic director have been supportive. I'm not looking for trouble.
"No expectations here are greater than my own. One thing I picked up from John Wooden is don't be envious of other people. I cannot control what was done in the past. We look at the now."
Tustin's Andy Ground should be on firm ground. He also has created a high standard the last two seasons, with records of 28-3 and 25-4. In the 1994-95 season, the Tillers reached the section II-A finals.
Both teams had a different all-county standout on which to lean: point guard Doug Gottlieb and forward David Lalazarian. That won't be the case this season.
"I don't feel I have to win [a division title]," Ground said. "From a personal standpoint I would love to win it, but even if two-time champion [Compton] Dominguez wasn't in our division, I would still not feel the pressure because there are other good teams.
"If I had the team from the past two years or last year, I would expect it. But I don't expect it from this team. I'm sure the fans have inflated expectations because when you've done well they keep expecting you to do well. That's the way it is."
Halagan has tried to do everything he can to prepare his Woodbridge team. The Warriors' schedule includes tournaments such as the National Sports Grill, the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the one-day Martin Luther King Holiday Invitational in Irvine. There are nonleague games against Tustin, Villa Park and Sonora. And, of course, there will be two Sea View confrontations with Santa Margarita.
"We'll need some luck in staying away from injuries and avoiding foul trouble," Halagan said. "But do I feel good about our chances? I sure do."
Halagan isn't soliciting advice on how to best get through the 1996-97 season.
But we found some.
"They should step back and enjoy each game," McKnight said. "Don't look ahead, but play them one game at time."
Said Murphy: "I would tell him not to get caught up in their last game, whenever it is, because you could forget what a great season you had. Even if you don't win the section or state title, it doesn't mean you don't have a great year."