Last season will forever be remembered as one of the best in the history of the La Cañada High boys' basketball program, but Spartans Coach Tom Hofman is focused on this year.
Hofman knows it can be difficult for a team to live up to expectations when its predecessor won a CIF Southern Section Division III-AA championship and reached the CIF State Division III Southern California Regional finals, like La Cañada did last year.
"Obviously, there is a little pressure following that and we have talked about that," said Hofman, who's entering his 26th year coaching La Cañada, and will have five new starters this year. "The starting lineup this year will have four starting seniors. This is their year and they are going to do the best they can. You can't look back at other years."
Hofman just wants his team to focus on what it can control, handle business in Rio Hondo League — the Spartans have won nine of the past 10 league crowns — and take the playoffs one step at a time.
"We are just going to play it game by game," Hofman said. "We are a brand new team. We are really inexperienced, but we are a talented team."
Conner Boyd, a senior center, and Tim Kim, a senior forward, are the two Spartans returning with the most experience, as both played quality minutes off the bench last year.
It's Darrell Dansby, a senior guard who saw limited action last year, who has set himself up to be a marquee player for La Cañada with what he's shown over the summer.
"Darrell Dansby is looking really good this year," Hofman said. "He's got outstanding defense and he's always had that, and his offensive play has really stepped up. He is so athletic and looks like he is going to be outstanding for us this year."
Ryan Lee and Jay Srinivasan, a knock-down shooter, will start at point and shooting guard, respectively, for the Spartans this year. Hofman knows the new-look team will bring a new offensive strategy as well.
"Mikey [McGlashan] could take over late in a game last year," Hofman said of his star guard last year. "It will have to be more balanced this year. Each game, we could have a different leading scorer, depending on what defenses are giving us."
Hofman also expects the Spartans to be solid on defense, as they usually are, especially with defensive stoppers like Kim, Dansby and Boyd, a 6-foot-9 center, guarding the paint.
"I think defensively we should be very solid," Hofman said. "They show good size on the defensive side of the court and that will be big for us because our offense may not be as consistent. You want your defense to keep you in the game, it's what got us through some playoff games last year."
Flintridge Prep is also coming off its finest season ever after beating Muir to win the CIF Southern Section Division V-AA title, but also comes back without the most dominant player in program lore, center Kenyatta Smith, who is now at Harvard University.
Still, a good number of the key players in last year's run are back, including three starters in guards Robert Cartwright, a sophomore, and senior Kory Hamane, as well as junior swingman Jedrick Eugenio.
"We're definitely going to miss Kenyatta because of everything he did," Prep Coach Garrett Ohara said of Smith, whose myriad senior honors included CIF Division V Player of the Year and All-Area Player of the Year. "But those three solid guards are back and stronger, bigger and with another year under their belts, so they're ready to go and we expect great leadership from them."
Replacing the other graduated starter, Jared Norsworthy, at power forward will be junior Chad Cosse and junior Kareem Ismail will assume duties in the middle.
"He's ready to step up as a junior and take an active role at the center position," Ohara said of the 6-foot-5 Ismail. "He's a little different player [than Smith]. He's got more of an outside, kind of a Euro big-man [game] where he can go inside, but can also shoot a decent outside shot."
Before the Rebels mount a defense of their CIF title, they will attempt to defend the Prep League crown, which they shared with Poly last year. The Panthers don't figure to be as formidable, however, having lost four starters, including Daniel Wohl and Hunter Merryman. Ohara predicts Chadwick to be tougher this season, as well as Rio Hondo Prep, which returns four starters.
"Anything can happen in [the Prep] League, but I think, on paper, we would still probably be the favorite," Ohara said.
Renaissance had no trouble competing in the Harbor League last year, winning the title in its first year there after several freelance seasons, but the Wildcats have always been more oriented toward CIF goals than league championships.
With senior center Jessy Cantinol back, Renaissance will look to get over the hump after making a pair of semifinal appearances and one trip to the quarters in the last four years.
"We're better than last year because everybody kind of knows what they're doing and we added some things to the offense," Cooke said. "We got bigger and stronger than last year.
"We're just more experienced at playing together. I just like the chemistry on this team."
St. Francis plays in hands down the toughest league of any local squad, as the Mission League is stacked with giants, including Loyola, ranked 20th in the nation preseason by ESPN. Still, the Golden Knights have been an at-large playoff mainstay in recent years, partly because of the credibility Mission League membership lends and also because of their nonleague body of work. Third-year co-Coach Ray O'Brien said that will have to be the case more than ever this season.
"Our league is, maybe more so than ever before, unbelievably strong this year," O'Brien said. "Last year we won two [league] games, both against Chaminade and Chaminade has improved. Without any transfers, we expect it to pretty much be a challenge."
St. Francis has a potent senior backcourt tandem in sharpshooters Emerson Castaneda and Zack Gardea, who will be the key for the Golden Knights along with a strong team defensive effort.
"Part of how well we do is going to be how much they contribute," O'Brien said of his supporting cast, which includes less experienced seniors and new arrivals to varsity. "They are capable scorers. The question is can they pick up the kind of defensive intensity we want to bring to the game?"