Flintridge Prep, La Canada, St. Francis basketball look for more success this season

All three local boys' basketball teams will hope to build on last year when the 2013-14 season tips off. Two of the squads fell below expectations, while another matched a program-best playoff run and is hungry for more.

Flintridge Prep and La Cañada High both exited the playoffs earlier than hoped a season ago, with the Rebels falling just shy of their championship hopes in the semifinals and the Spartans dealt a first-round loss at home. St. Francis is coming off a quarterfinal run and has championship hopes this year.

Both La Cañada and St. Francis bring back just about everyone for the upcoming season, while Flintridge Prep graduated a slew of seniors but returns its Stanford-bound star in Robert Cartwright.

"Having experienced guards, senior starters and captains does a world of good for helping our guys who are new to these roles," Prep Coach Garrett Ohara said of Cartwright and fellow senior guard Kyle Hamane. "Those two will certainly make it easier."

The Rebels are fresh off a pair of heartbreaking losses – a 60-58 defeat to Mission Prep in the CIF Southern Section Division V-AA semifinals and 60-51 loss to Village Christian in the first round of the CIF State Division V Southern Regional tournament. They will look for success with a much different plan of attack after graduating six key players and just about all their size.

"We're not very tall as we've been the last seven years," said Ohara, who's grown accustomed to winning the battle down low with players like Harvard's Kenyatta Smith and just-graduated Kareem Ismail. "I think the thing that this team does have is they're a little more mobile, agile and quick."

Ohara will still have a dominating presence in Cartwright, the reigning Prep League Player of the Year, All-CIF and All-Area first-team point guard that averaged 18.9 points, 4.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 steals a game last year. Along with Hamane, senior returners Stefan Smith and Scott Tsangeos will assume much bigger roles, along with sophomore returner Andrew Tsangeos and junior-varsity call-up Miles Johnson.

As it's been every year, Cartwright will be asked to do more this year for Prep after becoming the team's undisputed leader last year.

"I think he will score a little bit more," Ohara said. "He averaged close to 19 points last year; he might be in the low 20s. He will still be a distributor for us, but we need to use him in different ways. He may have to do more for us rebounding the ball and defensively he will be big for us. His versatility really helps."

Cartwright and the Rebels will have their hands full when the postseason comes around, as CIF announced Friday they were bumped up to Division IV-AA.

With all its postseason success in recent years, including a Division V-AA championship in 2011, and increasing enrollment, Flintridge Prep was moved into the division that includes powerhouses like Serra, La Verne Lutheran and Bishop Montgomery.

"That's the who's who of basketball," Ohara said.

St. Francis is coming off a program-best quarterfinal run in Division III-A, and Golden Knights co-Coach Ray O'Brien, who works alongside Jeff Stephens, is feeling confident bringing back most of his team that went 17-14 (4-8 in Mission League) into a division that saw last year's champion St. John Bosco bumped up.

"The goal is to ultimately go deeper than you've ever gone and to the championship," O'Brien said. "I believe we are in a position to do that this year. … They've kind of realigned the divisions. Some of the top teams moved up, so while it's competitive, I think we still have a really good shot if we can stay healthy."

The Golden Knights' success would not just be a product of a favorable bracket, as they return their top nine players last year.

"I have never been in an experience like that, we have a lot of experience coming back this year," O'Brien said.

Third-year starter and senior Evan Crawford and returning All-Mission League first-team and All-CIF pick Kyle Leufroy will lead the Knights. Crawford provides St. Francis with versatility, able to guard any position and leading the team in rebounds last year, while Leufroy averaged 18.1 points a game last year at point guard.

Senior forward Noah Willerford gives St. Francis some strength down low and is the team's best outside shooter right now, O'Brien said. He'll be accompanied by junior Markar Agakanian and senior Greg Lupica down low, with Brodie Felkel and John Carroll bringing some depth at forward.

"We're not tall, but we've got about six guys on this team that stand between 190 to 200 pounds," O'Brien said. "What we lack in height, we should make up for in muscle. We're going to be very strong and physical."

Michael Allen and Jake Beck also bring guard experience off the bench.

"We have six guys that rotate through the starting lineup and even then we still have experience coming off the bench," O'Brien said. "We go about nine guys deep and we'll need that depth to compete in our league."

It's certainly an unenviable task the Knights have, as they look to improve on their fifth-place finish in a league that includes Loyola, Alemany, Harvard-Westlake and Chaminade.

"We're used to it, it is what it is," O'Brien said of the challenging Mission. "I would rather have a competitive league than a noncompetitive league. We don't even think about it. The kids are welcoming the challenge this year to compete with teams who have been a challenge for us in the past."

La Cañada finds itself in an unusual position this season, as it looks to take back the Rio Hondo League title from reigning champion Temple City after winning the title the three previous years. The Spartans also want to improve on a first-round exit in Division III-AA after a 49-48 home loss to Lakeside last year, after moving into Division III-A.

The Spartans, who went 15-13, 7-3 in league for second place in 2012-13, do appear to have an advantage in the Rio Hondo. Temple City graduated five key players and La Cañada returns most of its impact players and welcomes in a number of promising new additions.

"It's an interesting group," said La Cañada Coach Tom Hofman, who has five seniors returning to big roles and about six underclassmen also standing to make an impact. "It's kind of all over the place. It's a real gap of classes so they need to learn to work together, but it's coming along pretty well."

Hofman's starting five figures to be senior forwards Kyle Thomas and Jacob Brown, senior guards Alec Baktamian and Dan Jun and sophomore guard KoKo Kurdoghlian returning to lead the group again.

There are six players who will see time at guard or on the wing, with senior brothers Dan and Justin Cohen, sophomores Grant Arthur, Ben Choi and Davon Grayson and freshman Justin Kouyoumdjian.

With Kouyoumdjian, Kurdoghlian and freshman backup center/forward Sean Estes, Hofman has the only three freshmen to work their way onto his varsity squad in the past 12 years. Arthur, Choi and Grayson are also rare talents, evidenced by their jump from the freshman team to varsity.

It's the most underclassmen Hofman said he's ever had on one team before.

"With this particular group, what we want to focus on is trying to get better every game, every practice," Hofman said. "We have so many young guys out there trying to learn to play at this level."

La Cañada will have to learn quickly, as Hofman is looking to increase the offense's productivity by going with a transition attack.

"If we play hard and use that depth we'll be pretty solid," Hofman said. "We're going to try to up-tempo the game a little bit more because we have a little more athleticism and a lot more depth."

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