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Granada Hills is home to a true basketball team

In the strange world of high school basketball, there are no rebuilding years for the elite teams. Transfers show up to plug holes left by seniors, or a hotshot freshman arrives, which means every season, Santa Ana Mater Dei, Woodland Hills Taft, Compton Dominguez and a few others are always contending for a championship.

Then there are the normal programs, where the old ways of doing things still prevail. Players start out on the freshman team, work their way up to junior varsity, then varsity. By the time the players are seniors, a coach hopes their experience can finally result in competing for a league title, even if it happens once every four years.

Don Loperena, the coach at Granada Hills, understands the lay of the land. He lost his best player, Jordan Coleman, who transferred to Calabasas this season, but those who stayed are having a magical season, causing many to scratch their heads and ask the question, “How do the Highlanders keep winning?”

Granada Hills starts three guards who are 5 feet 8. They’re known as the munchkins -- Ryan Tomita, Trevor Medina and Greg Parker. Each one is averaging about 10 points a game. Another starter, Nick Bullock, is 5-10. And the big man, Greg Haskett, is 6-3.

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Granada Hills began the season with eight consecutive victories and won the Moorpark tournament championship, then lost three consecutive games.

Last week, the Highlanders won the Chaminade tournament, beating a 10-1 Valencia team, 50-45, in overtime. In the semifinals, Granada Hills beat a 10-1 Santa Monica team, 49-46.

Four years ago, Loperena took over the Granada Hills program and coached all four levels. The players learned fundamentals each season.

“They haven’t grown much taller, but their hearts and spirit are huge,” Loperena said.

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Loperena will never get mentioned with the likes of Ed Azzam at Westchester, Harvey Kitani at Fairfax or Derrick Taylor at Taft, but he’s one of the top coaches in the City Section. His teams always play hard, smart and unselfishly. And he understands that winning a championship isn’t the only way to measure success in high school sports.

What he is accomplishing this season with a 12-3 start deserves attention.

Will the Highlanders be able to challenge Taft for the West Valley League title? No way. But it will be interesting to see whether the Toreadors take them lightly in their league opener on Jan. 14, and Granada Hills certainly has a shot at winning the City Invitational title.

Loperena is enjoying great satisfaction in guiding a group of home-grown players.

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“This team is testament to the importance of trust, the power of relationships, loyalty to one program and the dedication to what is honorable,” he said in an e-mail last month. “There is not one transfer on this team. Just a bunch of good kids, having fun, playing basketball and acquiring skills that will help them in a more important game than basketball. That game is life.”

What a concept for high school basketball and what a team to root for.

Hot ticket

Winter break continues this week at Fairfax, so don’t show up to start waiting outside the gym for tickets for the Western League game between Fairfax and Westchester on Jan. 16. But that ticket will be much in demand.

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The Lions are 11-2. Westchester is 14-1. Last season, fans filled Fairfax’s gym for the 5:30 p.m. junior varsity game just so they could obtain a seat for the 7 p.m. varsity game. Fairfax’s gym seats about 850, and every spot should be taken for the first of at least three Westchester-Fairfax games in 2009.

Big game

As far as small schools basketball, there might not be a better game this month than North Hollywood Campbell Hall (9-3) taking on Los Angeles Windward (9-5) on Saturday night at Windward. Besides watching the celebrities in the crowd, pay attention to Campbell Hall sophomore guard Austin McBroom, who will be the key to delivering victory for the Vikings.

Tough schedule

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La Puente Bishop Amat has won the last two Southern Section Division V championships in baseball. The team is moving to Division IV this spring and probably deserves to be put back into Division I, where it used to compete, but at least the Lancers aren’t hiding from competition.

Coach Andy Nieto has scheduled Chatsworth, Long Beach Wilson, Lakewood, Orange Lutheran, Santa Margarita, Servite, Cypress, Diamond Ranch, Charter Oak and Alta Loma for nonleague games. There’s not one easy game in the group.

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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