Maintaining forward progress will be key for local basketball squads

La Cañada High, Flintridge Prep and St. Francis’ boys’ basketball teams all have something to build on this season after making the CIF Southern Section playoffs last year.

Flintridge Prep has some unfinished business after a disappointing first-round exit in Division V-AA, while the Spartans (Division III-AA) and Golden Knights (Division III-A) simply have their work cut out for them in rebuilding largely new lineups into contenders.

La Cañada is coming off a second-round playoff run that came on the heels of its third straight Rio Hondo League title, which it shared with South Pasadena. Gone is forward Darrell Dansby, an All-CIF first-team selection and a lockdown defender who led the team in scoring last year, along with six other graduated seniors.

The Spartans do return two starters that will comprise their backcourt in senior point guard Ryan Lee, a three-year starter, and junior Dan Jun, who veteran Spartans Coach Tom Hofman said may be his best all-around player.

Senior Jack Anderson will look to assume a bigger role in the post after logging light minutes last year and senior Mario Del Cueto will also look to make the jump from complimentary piece to starting wing, although there’s no shortage of competition at that position.

“The wings are competitive right now,” said Hofman, who is also trying to find room on the wings for sophomore sharpshooter Brendan Hempsted and freshman KoKo Kurdoghlian, who is the first freshman varsity player at La Cañada in 11 years. “[Kurdoghlian] has impressed us with his scoring ability and rebounding. That’s something we need this year on this team.”

Senior Aidan Branney will provide size for a team that doesn’t boast a strong post presence. As was its calling card last year, Hofman said the Spartans will need to defend well, especially while the offense gets settled.

“We need to be a really good defensive team,” Hofman said. “We’re kind of an average shooting team right now, but we’re getting better I think and we’re running our offense a lot better than we were a month ago.

“We need to run a little bit more than we did last year and play equally well defensively because we’re going to have some trouble at times scoring.”

Hofman said the top priority is defending the league title, which he hopes will warm the team up for a strong playoff run.

“It’s a good, solid division, but not a great one,” Hofman said. “If we really steadily improve by the end of the season, I think we can be competitive in our CIF division. Our goal right now is doing well in league and to be playing our best when we get into playoffs.”

With six seniors and nine total returners, Flintridge Prep returns the most experience with junior starting point guard Robert Cartwright and senior starting small forward Jedrick Eugenio back from the 2010-11 team that won the Division V-AA championship. And although the Rebels did lose an All-CIF first-teamer in Kory Hamane from last year, two more starters in center Kareem Ismail and power forward Chadd Cosse return from the squad that went 8-0 in the Prep League for its 10th title in the last 11 years.

“That’s a great place to start,” Prep Coach Garrett Ohara said. “[Cartwright] has improved tremendously, he’s had an amazing summer and has been getting a lot of Division I [college] looks this fall. Every aspect of his game is better, and also his leadership.”

Filling in the depth for the Rebels are senior forward Tyler Weakland and junior guard Kyle Hamane, both prominent returners. With the most weapons and depth, the Rebels figure to remain the alpha dog in a league where there’s a good degree of parity between Pasadena Poly, Chadwick and Rio Hondo Prep.

“That’s a luxury,” Ohara said. “We have a lot of experience.”

While the Rebels have dominated the Prep League, St. Francis has typically struggled in the tough Mission League, where it finished sixth. But that hasn’t stopped the Golden Knights from making a string of playoff appearances over the past several seasons.

The challenge this season will be maintaining that streak without graduated guards Emerson Castaneda and Zack Gardea, who provided the majority of the team’s scoring over the past several years.

Out of five returning players, junior guard Evan Crawford is the only starter back from last year’s team that lost to Covina in the second round of the playoffs. St. Francis co-Coach Jeff Stephens said juniors Noah Willingford and Jake Beck have stepped up and should provide the young Knights, who have just two seniors, with stability.

“It’s pretty wide open, there’s a lot of competition [for starting spots],” Stephens said. “A lot of guys are in the mix and we’re really trying to figure out who the heck is going to be starting, but it’s not that important because we’re going to be a little deeper than we’ve been in the past.”

Newcomers Michael Allen, Kyle Leufroy, John Carroll and Markar Aghakanian, all sophomores, should get a chance to log heavy minutes.

“Our goal is to try to get more guys we can play with and go into every game with a chance to compete,” Stephens said. “We’re just trying to make the next step. We’re not in a rebuilding mode.”

Renaissance Academy, which won its first-ever CIF championship last season in Division 6, has moved its doors from La Cañada Flintridge to Altadena.

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