The Frontier League boys' basketball schedule opens Friday, but aficionados of the circuit had best circle Jan. 24 and Feb. 14, the dates defending league champion Santa Clara plays Moorpark, last season's runner-up.
Those meetings, between the two teams considered the league's likely title contenders, almost certainly will decide whether the title remains in Oxnard. Santa Paula could also challenge for the championship.
Santa Clara (7-4) returns only one starter from a team that finished 22-5. This season's team is the program's youngest in many seasons.
Moorpark (12-5) returns two starters and appears to have an edge over the Saints in depth and athleticism. The Musketeers have never beaten Santa Clara in eight years under Coach Tim Bednar, a former Santa Clara player, but Bednar believes that will soon change.
"It's going to be a battle but I think our team is ready to win the league title," Bednar said. "We beat [Santa Clara] this year in summer league and at that point we realized we can beat a team with mystique."
In order to retain their title, the Saints will have to win as they learn. But there are few better teachers than Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich, who has won 28 league titles in basketball during his 39 seasons at the school.
"It's repeat, repeat, repeat with these guys because they keep making the same mistakes," Cvijanovich said. "I have to be careful and try to chew them out and encourage them at the same time. It makes me sound hypocritical."
Cvijanovich has not set a starting lineup for league but three strong candidates are seniors Skye Peterson and Peter Lee and sophomore Nick Jones.
Peterson, a 6-foot-5 forward and a two-year starter, is averaging 9.6 rebounds. Lee is a 6-1 point guard and a top-notch defender who had considerable playing time as a reserve last season. Jones, 6-4 and the most valuable player of last season's junior varsity, is a gifted forward averaging 12.7 points.
Moorpark returns 6-5 junior forward Kevin Lawrence and 6-2 junior guard Keith Donahue from a team that advanced to last season's Southern Section Division III-AA semifinals and finished 19-11.
Lawrence averaged 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 1995-96 and has improved his scoring average to 18.7 this season. Donahue is averaging 11 points.
Senior Kalani Ferreria (6-2) starts at point guard after missing last year with an injury. Freshman shooting guard Todd Tomlinson (5-10) will play a lot.
"We have more overall talent and the potential to go pretty far," Bednar said. "The expectations of the team and community are high."
Santa Paula went with five first-year starters last season, finished 15-10 and earned a playoff berth. Four starters return, led by senior guard Josh Jimenez, who averages 22.6 points, and junior forward Willy Zavala, who averages 11.6.
"I have a lot of expectations for this team," Coach Tom Donahue said. "We've got some speed, we play good defense and I don't have to provide much leadership. They do that themselves."
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AT A GLANCE
* THE PROVEN: Calabasas guard Ryan Coleman, who averaged 17.9 points and was an all-league pick last season, is averaging 24 points in his fourth varsity season. His senior back court mate, Bobby Bauman, is averaging 21 points. . . . Santa Paula All-Southern Section senior guard Josh Jimenez is averaging 22.6 points. . . . Malibu forward Ian Fishburn (6 feet 4) averages 13.7 points and 9.3 rebounds, and center Matt Semerau (6-6) averages nine points and eight rebounds.
* THE PROMISING: Nordhoff's Chris Christoffersen, a 6-11, 240-pound junior center and an exchange student from Denmark, is averaging 15.1 points and 5.6 blocks. . . . Moorpark freshman guard Todd Tomlinson is an effective three-point shooter, averaging 8.7 points. . . . Santa Clara sophomore forward Nick Jones, averaging 12.7 points, could become dominant.
* FAST FACT: In each of Santa Paula Coach Tom Donahue's six seasons, the Cardinals have had an All-Southern Section guard.