With 23 Southern Section championships, 11 state titles and headed for a 36th league title in Gary McKnight’s 37th season as head coach, Santa Ana Mater Dei should never be underestimated in boys’ basketball.
So how come much of the hype and expectations for possibly winning an Open Division title this season has followed Chatsworth Sierra Canyon and Temecula Rancho Christian while the Monarchs have largely stayed under the radar despite being 21-1 and having five underclassmen averaging in double figures?
“I love them,” McKnight said. “I will love them for the next few years.”
Mater Dei showed on Wednesday night it’s ready to play in the big games coming in February and March by routing Santa Margarita 76-57 in a road game that was supposed to be competitive. Santa Margarita (15-7) upset Rancho Christian on Saturday night but the Eagles’ two standout players, UCLA-bound Jake Kyman and USC-bound Max Agbonkpolo, encountered strong defensive performances from Ryan Evans and Devin Askew.
Askew held Agbonkpolo scoreless until midway through the third quarter. He finished with six points. Kyman went scoreless in the third quarter and didn’t attempt a shot when Santa Margarita’s deficit went from eight to 16 points. He finished with 19 points.“Just get into his head and stop him from going right,” Askew said of his defensive strategy against Agbonkpolo. “You have to put pressure on him.”
Evans, a former Santa Margarita player who used to practice against Kyman, said, “I know he doesn’t like to be guarded up close.”
The Monarchs’ balance on offense gives McKnight lots of options. Evans finished with 19 points, Wilhelm Breidenbach 17, Harrison Hornery 16, Aidan Prukop 11 and Askew added 10 points and 10 assists. Kendall McHugh scored 16 points for Santa Margarita.
“To play defense and run the offense, that’s a tough assignment,” McKnight said of Askew, a 6-foot-4 sophomore.
Said Askew: “It’s getting your body in shape and being prepared.”
Mater Dei plays at Bellflower St. John Bosco on Friday and hosts the Nike Extravaganza next Saturday as final preparation begins for next month’s playoffs.
Coaching change: Coaching in the Trinity League for football is similar to being a college coach. They expect you to win, and Santa Margarita announced Wednesday that it has dismissed third-year coach Rich Fisher after a 3-7 season and 0-5 mark in league play.
Fisher came to Santa Margarita after being an assistant coach at Nebraska. The Eagles made the Division 1 playoffs two of the three years. But it has become so challenging these days that rebuilding years are no longer acceptable in a league that welcomes transfers to replace graduating seniors. In other words, you’re expected to reload.
The signs of trouble for Fisher could be seen in that players have already left for rival Trinity League schools St. John Bosco and JSerra.
Schools are sending out letters welcoming incoming ninth-graders early next month, so look for Santa Margarita to work quickly to find a replacement. School spokesman Sean Zeitler said athletic director Jim Hartigan, a former Santa Margarita and JSerra head coach, will not be a candidate. He said the school has already made contact with several candidates.