One of the most intriguing story lines to watch in the 2018-19 high school boys’ basketball season is how the new-look Sunset Conference shakes out.
In 12 of the last 14 seasons, Edison or Los Alamitos, or both, have reigned atop the Sunset League standings. The only outliers were the 2012-13 season, when Fountain Valley took home the honors, and last season, when upstart Newport Harbor shared first with the Chargers.
But with the addition of two area teams — Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach — into the fold, the already powerful six-team Sunset League has evolved into an eight-team conference-style setup, which has been split into two leagues, the Surf and the Wave, opening up league title opportunities for teams not named Edison or Los Alamitos.
The Surf League is made up of Newport Harbor, Edison, Corona del Mar and Los Alamitos, while the Wave League features Marina, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach.
Each team within the Sunset Conference will play six league games — in the Surf or Wave League — as well as four crossover games against the other four teams in the conference. The top two teams in each league will receive automatic CIF Southern Section playoff berths.
Marina believes it could be the biggest beneficiary of the new landscape. The Vikings showed major progress last season, finishing above .500 for the first time since the 2009-10 season, pushing the 3-23 finish in 2016-17 even further in the rear-view mirror.
Coach Nick Racklin, in his eighth season at the helm of the Vikings, believes he has one of the most talented and hardest-working teams, top to bottom, in his tenure.
“It’s just been player buy-in,” Rackin said about the turnaround of the Marina program, which last season finished 16-12 overall and 5-5 in the Sunset League, good enough for fourth place, and won its first postseason game since 2008-09. “They’ve bought into a tradition and system that wasn’t here [when I took over]. We have five to seven guys who live in this gym and they expect to be good.”
Four-year starter and Lehigh University-commit Jakob Alamudun, a 6-foot-5 forward, is one of the biggest reasons for the Marina resurgence. The Vikings, who are off to a 9-9 start this season, have played a challenging schedule that includes Mater Dei, Rockford (Ill.) East, Villa Park, Newport Harbor, Downey, Palos Verdes and Montebello Schurr.
Racklin describes Alamudun’s work ethic as something that coaches of other sports on the Marina campus try to instill in their players and that’s rubbed off on his teammates.
Alamudun, who can be seen having a custodian open the gym for him before school at 6:30 a.m. or late in the evening, believes the Vikings have what it takes to make noise in Wave League play and in the Division 3AA playoffs.
“We’re trying to win it all,” Alamudun said. “We want league, we want CIF, we want everything. The last three years, we wanted all of that, but weren’t willing to put in the work to get there. But we’re hoping for a lot this season.”
Newport Harbor is another team hoping for a repeat of last season’s success, and it’s already started the season 14-1.
The Sailors snuck up on teams last season, finishing 21-7 overall and tying Edison for the league title at 8-2, culminated by a thrilling 48-47 home win over the Griffins in the final game of the regular season.
Newport Harbor is peppered with experienced returners, including eight seniors. The Sailors are led by senior Sam Barela, one of the top point guards in Orange County who is also among the early favorites to take home the Surf League MVP honor. He shared the Sunset League MVP last season.
Barela is confident that the Sailors won’t be glossed over this season when it comes to the discussion of the county’s best teams. Newport Harbor beat University 71-58 in the Tartan Classic title game at St. Margaret’s on Dec. 8, and earned a 60-50 win at Tesoro in the Orange County North-South Challenge on Saturday.
“There has always been Edison and Los Al winning the Sunset League,” Barela said. “But we’ve been working and I think this season is when we’ll show what we’re made of. We have a lot of experience and that will be huge for us.”
Barela expects fellow returning starter Dayne Chalmers, a 6-4 senior, to have a huge season, while senior Elijah Firey and junior Robby Spooner will be crucial parts of any Newport Harbor success because of their ability to stretch the floor from three-point range.
Newport Harbor coach Bob Torribio said this season’s team is focused and understands that it needs to be playing its best basketball come January.
“I like how competitive our group is and it’s something we pride ourselves on regardless of our talent level,” Torribio said. “The whole league is very balanced. Every school has a lot of players and great coaches, and the biggest thing for us is a next game mentality. We can’t dwell on any single game.”
Edison and Los Alamitos will certainly be in the league title hunt again this season, largely due to the programs’ experienced coaching staffs and rich history of competitiveness regardless of roster makeup.
For Edison, coach Rich Boyce has two talented senior guards in Kaden Headington and Aiden Garnett, both of whom saw starting time last season. They have helped the Chargers to an 11-5 record this season.
The backcourt duo have proved to be capable scorers both from three-point range and when creating their own shots off the dribble. Garnett averaged 7.5 points per game last season, while Headington scored 7.2 points per game.
Fountain Valley is looking to build upon some small stepping stones set by coach D’Cean Bryant in his first season in 2017-18.
The Barons’ three league wins last season were the most the program had since 2012-13, including a big win over rival Edison at home. They have four returners who saw big minutes last season in seniors Adam Beerck, Garrett Young and Severo De La Riva, and sophomore Jeremiah Davis. Sophomore wing Preston Amarillo will be a name to watch as he moves up from the junior varsity team.
Huntington Beach is optimistic it can rebound from a frustrating 2-24 finish to last season. And the Oilers already have by beginning this season 8-9.
Even though Huntington Beach lost top scorer Cade Ortiz, it returns a wealth of players, including senior Nick Saccacio, junior Richard Imagawa and senior John Stenlund. They helped the Oilers upset CdM 57-56 in a conference crossover game on Wednesday.
In looking at the two new teams added to the Sunset Conference, both the Sea Kings and the Breakers feature different styles of play.
CdM has a mixture of interior size and solid guard play. Senior Jack Stone, junior Jake Hamilton and senior Connor Schimmelpfennig are three key returning pieces to the Sea Kings’ backcourt, bringing steady ball-handling and deadly perimeter shooting, while Jack Garza, a 6-7 senior forward, has made strides as a rim protector and rebounder.
Sea Kings coach Ryan Schachter is expecting to have big contributions from football standouts, juniors John Humphreys and Ethan Garbers, as well, and will need them in such a deep, talented league.
“There is no bottom and there are no easy wins,” said Schachter, whose team is 9-5. “That makes it a lot more stressful because every team can easily win the league. I think our size and physicality is one of our best attributes and could be a huge factor for us.”
Laguna Beach has to find someone to replace the scoring of Blake Burzell, whose 21.4 points per game helped the Breakers to a 26-4 overall record and an Orange Coast League title in 2017-18. Laguna Beach also graduated its second and third top scorers.
So far the team has struggled, losing eight in a row to drop to 4-10.
Coach Brett Fleming, one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the county, has plenty of options at his disposal with 6-6 sophomore forward Nolan Naess, along with 6-1 junior guard Brooks Hogenauer and sophomore guard Willie Rounaghi.
Outside the Sunset Conference, Pacifica Christian Orange County is aiming for a big season despite the loss of its top scorer over the last two seasons, Dominick Harris, who transferred to Temecula Rancho Christian.
The Tritons gain two talented transfers in Judah Brown and Solomon Davis, who were deemed ineligible last season by the CIF Southern Section.
Brown, an athletic 6-7 junior, is a dynamic transition finisher and someone whose size and length will allow him to wreak havoc on the defensive end. Davis, a 6-7 senior forward, will be a tough cover in the San Joaquin League and the Division 4AA playoffs because of his ability to stretch the floor to the three-point line at his size.
“If guys stay healthy, we’re going to be awfully fun and competitive this year,” said Jeff Berokoff, who in his third season at Pacifica Christian has the Tritons at 10-5. “This group is continuously getting better and we’re more of a dynamic team because we have a lot more weapons. These guys love the extra pass, getting each other shots, and they root for each other.”
Houston Mallette, a 6-3 talented scoring transfer from Richmond Salesian College Prep, took over the point guard duties for the Tritons. Mallette helped Pacifica Christian reach Saturday’s final of The 8 tournament, which is part of the Les Schwab Invitational in Hillsboro, Ore.
With the departure of Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa (6-7) has a good chance to take over as the top team in the Orange Coast League.
The Mustangs bring back three players who averaged double figures in scoring last season, paced by senior point guard Nico Dasca, who poured in a team-high 20 points per game. But Dasca has been dealing with a back injury.
Osman Hefner (19 points per game) and Tre Villalpando (11.2) shore up Costa Mesa’s offense for second-year coach Mike Ofer, who is looking to lead the Mustangs to their first league title since 2005-06. They placed second last season at 7-3.
Estancia (9-7) is hoping to continue its progress under the tutelage of fifth-year coach Xavier Castellano. The Eagles finished above .500 for the first time since 2012-13, including a berth in the Division 5AAA playoffs after finishing with a 5-5 mark in Orange Coast League play.
Ocean View will have a new look on the sidelines as Jimmy Harris, son of Seahawks’ figurehead Jim Harris, took over the program. He replaced Roger Holmes, who left to become the athletic director at Fountain Valley, and Tim Walsh, who turned his focus to his athletic director duties at Ocean View.
Harris is faced with the tall task of replacing four-year starter Paul Head and three-year starter Mehkel Harvey, who is now playing at William & Mary.
Ocean View (7-6) is leaning on seniors Carson Nguyen and Vincent Caiazzo, along with a couple of incoming freshmen who could make an immediate impact, to try to stay atop the Golden West League.
In the Academy League, Sage Hill (7-6) is looking to take advantage of another season of experience for its young team.
The Lightning only had three seniors on the roster last season, and 6-9 junior center Johnny King is poised for a strong senior season after playing some quality club basketball over the summer.
Brethren Christian hopes to avoid a similar fate it suffered last season, finishing 3-18 overall under first-year coach Jeff Jefferson. Los Amigos is in the same boat as Brethren Christian as it started the season 2-12.
DEVIN UGLAND is a contributor to Times Community News. Follow him on Twitter: @Devin_Ugland