No one could have predicted the season that the Loara boys' basketball team had.
The Saxons had struggled the past 30 years. They hadn't won a league title since 1966 and had only two winning seasons since 1971.
And when Coach Ed Prange, an eight-year veteran, looked at his roster and saw only one starter returning from a team that was 1-9 in 1997 in the Empire League, even he was concerned.
What happened, though, can largely be attributed to the hard work of Prange, The Times Orange County coach of the year. Composed primarily of former junior varsity players who had never been on a winning team, Loara posted a 20-7 record and shared the Empire League title with Katella.
Prange shirks from the accolades, citing hard work by assistant coaches and the players. But his effort wasn't lost on others.
"No one on our staff works harder than he does," Loara Athletic Director Marty Johnson said. "Nobody is more respected, and as far as winning, everyone on our staff was so happy and excited for him."
To understand the magnitude of Prange's accomplishment, it's important to understand what he was up against at Loara, which, according to Johnson, is best known for its football and baseball teams. Before Prange, the job had been a revolving door.
When he was hired in 1990, few thought that Prange, whose only prior experience was a single season as the girls' coach at his alma mater, Orange, would last more than a season or two. After all, he was the ninth boys' basketball coach at the school in nine seasons.
"They had individual lockers for coaches," said Prange, a health education teacher. "When they hired me I went into the locker room. Each locker had the coach's name on it. Then I went to my locker and it didn't have a name on it. It just said, 'the current basketball coach.' "
Prange was determined not to go back through the revolving door. But his early years were marked by losing seasons. Prange tried to keep the entire package in mind.
"If you judge us over the years since I took over the program, I think we have made strides when we weren't necessarily winning," he said. "We got the kids more involved in the program. We helped raise the team grade-point average and things like that."
Prange hired a strong supporting cast of underclass coaches, including varsity assistant Craig Conrad, Los Alamitos' head coach during the 1970s. Conrad came on board five years ago to coach the freshman team, and Prange talked him into joining the varsity staff several years ago.
Prange also stressed tough defense.
"Defense generated most of our offense," senior forward Mike Eshelman said. "We got a lot of points off fast breaks because of defense. Coach started working on that about three years ago and it began to click this season.
Villa Park Coach Kevin Reynolds, who took over the Spartans in a similar situation three seasons ago and has guided them to one co-championship and two outright titles, said the Saxons' turnaround under Prange wasn't as much of a surprise as many might think.
"His team played with great energy this year," Reynolds said. "He had them so inspired. When you go through a drought as long as they did and to see them playing so hard, that is a credit to him. He did a great job of infusing energy and enthusiasm in his players."