Vaqueros improvise

The last thing Kris Klamberg needed was a reminder of last season.

It's all too fresh in the mind of the Irvine High boys' basketball coach what an injury to a key player can do to a team, like it did to his team last season when one of its top scorers, Alain Tran, was injured in the Pacific Coast League opener and missed the rest of the season.

The Vaqueros, despite a respectable 9-6 nonleague record, plummeted in league, finishing 1-8 and in last place.

This season's PCL opener is just around the corner, coming Jan. 6 when Irvine faces perennial contender Corona del Mar. The Vaqueros again have performed well in nonleague games, going 7-4 so far this year with two of those losses coming to highly-ranked Cypress.

But the injury bug has bitten again.

Guard Mahesh Kumar, Irvine's leading scorer averaging 14.7 points per game, tore his ACL Dec. 9 in a victory over Laguna Beach and will miss the rest of the season.

Irvine is 2-2 in the four games since Kumar's injury, but fortunately for Klamberg, others have stepped up in Kumar's absence.

"We've had to make an adjustment to see who was going to take his role and pick up what he was doing for us," Klamberg said. "So it's kind of been a transition period for us ever since the Laguna Beach game, who's going to step up and do their thing."

The scoring void left by Kumar has been picked up by guards Cameron Foster and Matthew Kerns, Foster scoring a season-high 19 points in the Vaqueros' last game, a victory over Costa Mesa, and Kerns taking on the role as the team's three-point threat.

"Our guys have done a good job of scoring, they've spread the wealth," Klamberg said. "I think [in the victory over Costa Mesa] we had three guys in double figures.

"Kerns is a pretty good shooter; he's a guy we rely on to knock down a lot of threes. Mahesh was the guy doing a lot of that. Cameron's done a pretty good job of knocking down threes once in a while, but what he's done really well is getting fouled and getting to the free-throw line."

Both with and without Kumar, Irvine's scoring has come from the outside from the guards. But Klamberg is hoping to become a little more balanced by the time league opens when 6-foot-4 post player Ryan Soltes returns from an ankle injury.

"When Ryan comes back we'll have a little different force in the block than we're getting right now," Klamberg said. "Ryan was getting a lot of reps in the fall. He's a guy we're relying on to help us get back to what we were doing."

Klamberg said the target date for Soltes' return is the league opener on Jan. 6 vs. CdM.

"CdM is always a team you have to be aware of in terms of winning our league," Klamberg said. "They've been right there most of the time, challenging for the title.

"Woodbridge also is a team you have to look at. They've played a good schedule up to this point and they've played pretty well. Off the bat I would look at those two schools."

Klamberg is hoping some of the tougher nonleague games have helped prepare his players for a challenging league schedule. The Vaqueros opened the season in the stocked Godinez Invitational with three consecutive victories, beating Anaheim, Estancia and North Torrance, before losing close games to Cypress and El Dorado.

"I think playing in that first tournament, getting through our pool bracket and getting the opportunity to play in a bracket where El Dorado was in there, Cypress was in there, North Torrance … there were some pretty good teams.

"It was nice for our guys to get in there and compete against those teams because it allows you to measure yourself against some of the best teams in the county. It also gives you an idea of what separates them a little bit, why they're consistently there and see what you have to do to stay at that level."

Irvine will play in the Elks Holiday Tournament starting Monday.

"My approach with the guys is to get better every game," said Klamberg, in his seventh season at Irvine after coaching as an assistant at UC San Diego, the University of Redlands and La Costa Canyon High. "As long as we're getting better in practice and each game, things are going to fall into place."

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