Prep Rally: Inland Empire showcases its strength in basketball

Corona Centennial guard Jared McCain, right, and teammate Ramsey Huff celebrate after defeating Harvard-Westlake.
Corona Centennial guard Jared McCain, right, and teammate Ramsey Huff celebrate after defeating Harvard-Westlake for the Southern Section Open Division title Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Prep Rally. My name is Eric Sondheimer. The last time high school basketball held a state championship in Sacramento was 2019. Then COVID-19 struck, forcing the finals in March 2020 to be canceled. They are back on for March 11-12, and the regional playoffs begin this week.

Inland Empire power

Etiwanda players celebrate Southern Section Open Division championship.
(Nick Koza)

All hail the Inland Empire. Corona Centennial and Etiwanda are the Southern Section boys and girls basketball champions, respectively, in the Open Division. It says plenty about the talent level and the quality coaching found in an area that has been growing and changing demographically for years.


Both schools will be favored to reach Sacramento for the state championship games on March 12 at the Golden 1 Center. The regional playoffs begin this week.

Rematches could be in order.

As far as what happened last weekend, Centennial overwhelmed Harvard-Westlake behind its outstanding guard duo and strong play from its big men. Here’s a recap.

Etiwanda rallied from 14 points down to knock off Sierra Canyon and Juju Watkins. Here’s a recap.

State playoffs begin

The state regional basketball playoffs begin Tuesday, leading to the state championships.

Here’s the link to complete pairings.

Corona Centennial and Etiwanda received the No. 1 seed for the Open Division boys and girls, respectively.

The state regional soccer playoffs begin Tuesday and end Saturday. Servite is seeded No. 1 for Division 1 boys and Temecula Valley is No. 1 for girls.


Here’s the link to regional pairings for soccer.

History in City Section

Fairfax’s win in the City Section Open Division boys’ championship game over King/Drew provided quite a historic moment for the Morris family.

It was 41 years ago when Reggie Morris Sr. guided Manual Arts to the City title, his second. Now Reggie Morris Jr., his son, won his first title as coach at Fairfax. They’re the second father-son duo to coach City champions, joining Jerry Marvin Sr. (University, 1954) and Jerry Marvin Jr. (Palisades, 1969).

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, who played for Reggie Jr. at Leuzinger, attended the game at Roybal.

Here’s a look at the historic night in which the Lions had to overcome a 33-point performance from King/Drew’s Kalib LaCount.


Lino Zepeda of Los Angeles Roosevelt, a 6-foot-2 right-hander, couldn’t have been more impressive in his first two starts of the season. He has given up no runs in 14 innings with 23 strikeouts and one walk. He beat Chatsworth 1-0 last week.

“He’s good,” Chatsworth coach Marcus Alvarado said.

Zepeda was Roosevelt’s No. 1 pitcher last season, but coach Ray Ruiz said he has improved. “He’s a lot sharper,” Ruiz said. “He’s executing better.”

Junior shortstop Nolasco Matias is another standout for Roosevelt. He had a mammoth home run at East L.A. College last week. Alvarado says he thinks Matias is one of the two best players in the City Section. Roosevelt is 3-0 with wins over Taft and Chatsworth. Next up is another West Valley League opponent, Cleveland, on Monday.


Junior pitcher Ryan Jenkins of Norco has thrown consecutive no-hitters against Claremont and Chaparral. “He throws a curveball for a strike, and it’s an old-fashion drop,” coach Gary Parcell said.

Hocking goes off

Jarrod Hocking of Servite is off to a great start.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Jarrod Hocking, a UCLA commit, is finally healthy and the rest of Southern California is about to find out how good he is. The center fielder from Servite went five for five in the Loara tournament championship game, an 18-5 win for Servite (5-0) over Lakewood.

Birmingham is showing improved pitching over last season with a 5-1 record, and had a 6-5 win over a good Hart team.

This week’s top 25 high school baseball rankings by The Times.

Rk. SCHOOL (W-L); Comment (last week’s rank)

1. ORANGE LUTHERAN (5-0); Oliver Santos aiding pitching staff (1)

2. YUCAIPA (4-1); Owen Egan pitching like an ace (2)

3. HARVARD-WESTLAKE (4-1); Bryce Rainer is eight for 16 at the plate (3)

4. SERVITE (5-0); Jarrod Hocking went five for five on Saturday (10)

5. SIERRA CANYON (5-0); Kassius Thomas looks strong on mound (5)

For the complete rankings, go here.

Making a difference

Taft coach Derrick Taylor with Birmingham coach Nick Halic. Both graduated from their respective schools.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Nick Halic was close to joining the LAPD. He had completed a background investigation and gone through a grueling interview from retired detectives. He still had to pass a psychology test before being accepted into the police academy. He was sitting at a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas with friends when his cellphone showed a call from basketball coach Todd Wolfson.

“Hey, I just got through my interview at Chaminade,” Wolfson said. “I would love to have you on my staff if I get the job.”

Halic was torn. He was 26, a Birmingham High and college graduate who loved basketball. He was working in the Los Angeles Unified School District‘s Beyond the Bell program with middle-school students. His friend told him, “You’re always telling me about the kids. You should get into education.”

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Halic changed his future. He dropped his LAPD plans to become a teacher and coach. Now he’s a dean at Birmingham, has won two City Section titles, and at 39 serves as a role model to players and students.

He’s not alone. All four head coaches of the teams that made it to the City Section Open Division semifinals graduated from schools in the LAUSD and were inspired to return as teacher/coaches because adults made positive impressions to change their lives and put them on a path to giving back.

“What drew me to it was my relationship with my coach and what he did for me,” Halic said, referring to former Birmingham coach Al Bennett. “I didn’t have a father. I learned from coach Bennett.”

A profile on how Halic, Taylor, Reggie Morris Jr. of Fairfax and Lloyd Webster of King/Drew are making a difference.

Michael Lynch retires

Coach Michael Lynch holds up a CIF Southern Section championship plaque.
(Courtesy of Michael Lynch)

After 26 years coaching basketball in Southern California, Michael Lynch has announced his retirement as a high school coach.

He spent the last seven years at Pasadena La Salle. Before that, in 19 years at Los Angeles Price, his team won 10 Southern Section championships and eight state championships. He had 36 players move on to college or the pros, including Allen Crabbe.

He’s a retired police detective who went into coaching, helping to mold teenagers into good students and good people.

His teams once won eight consecutive CIF titles. He won more than 626 games as a high school coach.


Colin Sahlman honored

Colin Sahlman of Newbury Park is the nation's top distance runner.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Colin Sahlman of Newbury Park High was on campus two years ago to clap and get excited when teammate Nico Young received an award from Gatorade as the top cross-country runner in the nation for 2019-20.

It happened again Wednesday, except this time it was teammates applauding Sahlman as the winner of the Gatorade national cross-country runner of the year.

“It’s very special,” Sahlman said. “It’s the most prestigious award for high school sports and to see Nico get it two years ago is an amazing experience.”

Sahlman said he used Young as his role model. He will join Young this fall at Northern Arizona. Sahlman has been setting records this winter in track and field. He ran 3:58.81 in an indoor mile in New York this month, the third-fastest indoor mile ever by a high school athlete.

Here’s the link to video of Sahlman being honored.


A story of redemption

Goalie Madison Lee was cut twice by Granada Hills, left for Reseda Cleveland and became a City champion.
(Greg Venger)

Anyone who has been cut after trying out for a sports team knows what it feels like. You wait nervously for the email or phone call. Or you glance with trepidation at the P.E. office window and search for your name on the roster. If it’s missing, you want to cry.

Madison Lee has endured rejection not once but twice in high school. She tried out as a freshman goalie for the Granada Hills High girls’ soccer team. She was cut. She tried out again as a sophomore. Cut again.

The second time was the most painful. She remembers her bloody legs trying to stop balls while trying to make a positive impression on the coaches.

“I remember diving and trying and looking and a couple coaches were on their phones,” she said. “I remember coming home crying because I didn’t make it.”

Instead of giving up, she asked her mother if she could transfer to another school for a tryout. Last fall, she transferred to Reseda Cleveland. She made the team. That was a joyous occasion, but the celebration pales in comparison to what happened this past week in the playoffs.


Call it karma — she faced her old classmates from Granada Hills in the City Section Division I semifinals. The match went to penalty kicks and she came through twice to stop shots to help send Cleveland into the championship game. She went 3-0 against Granada Hills this season. Then she won a City title when Cleveland defeated El Camino Real.

A look at her story.


South East pulled off the stunner of the week to win the City Section Division I boys’ soccer championship with a 2-1 overtime win over defending champion Birmingham.

Earlier in the week, South East upset No. 1-seeded El Camino Real. To beat El Camino Real and Birmingham in consecutive matches is quite a tribute to the Rams’ program and coach Felipe Bernal.

In Southern Section Division 1 boys, Servite won the championship on penalty kicks over JSerra. Goalie Merrick Cook was the star.

In Division 1 girls, Temecula Valley defeated Corona Santiago for the title.

Here are the complete Southern Section championship results.


Here are the complete City Section championship results.

Giving back

Grace Jackson, a volleyball player at Santa Margarita High, held a clothing drive to help Kids for CASA.

At first, Grace Jackson didn’t really hear them.

Fresh out of practice, the Santa Margarita High football team had clambered into the stands, chowing down on slices of pizza while watching Jackson, their equipment manager, traverse the volleyball court.

Jackson was laser-focused on the match against Fullerton Rosary. But soon, her attention snapped to the crowd, the football guys banging their feet against the bleachers in a rhythmic chant:

“She’s my man-ager!”

For almost a year, the team had grown used to the 6-foot-1 junior working the football sidelines, a responsible figure who passed them water and game film. Now they were on her hardwood, off their turf. Jackson laughed at their chants and proceeded to play “out of her mind,” her mother, Lori, remembers.

“She’s not the most talkative outwardly, and so that was really cool when we watched her play volleyball, because she’d really get after it,” said Anthony Rouzier, head football coach at Santa Margarita. “She goes up there, she’s spiking it. You can see she’s in her flow and her comfort zone.”

Volleyball is an escape for Jackson, an outlet separate from the usual demands of being Grace. In addition to playing for the Eagles’ indoor and newly instituted beach volleyball teams, she’s a co-founder of the school’s chapter of Kids for CASA, which helps provide resources for children in foster care; an international Baccalaureate student; and proud manager of the football team since October 2020.


On an early morning in mid-February, she went back and forth to help collect trash bags filled with clothes from a turnstile of cars in front of the school. Wanting to benefit CASA, Jackson had organized a clothing drive that employed her beach volleyball teammates and Santa Margarita’s baseball team to trade in Goodwill donations for gift cards that would be given to foster kids.

She yawned, squinting at the sun, balling her hands inside a blue Eagles sweater.

“I’m going day by day,” Jackson said.

Those days are long. In the fall, Jackson would shuttle from football duties to indoor volleyball practices and games during a season when she racked up a team-leading 2.3 kills per set. This spring, she’s getting home at 8 p.m. from beach and club volleyball practices to delve into an ever-growing pile of homework.

Watching her cut across the sand every afternoon, beach coach Macy Jerger said you’d never have an idea Jackson was balancing such a big itinerary on her plate.

“She’s a silent warrior,” Jerger said.

Here’s a profile of her giving back.

Softball has put together a weekly Southern California top 20 softball rankings.

1. Villa Park 4-0

2. Mission Viejo 8-0

3. La Habra 5-0

4. Garden Grove Pacifica 4-1

5. Camarillo 7-1

6. Eastvale Roosevelt 7-1

7. Los Alamitos 3-1

8. La Mirada 3-2

9. Oaks Christian 0-0

10. Westlake 3-0

11. Orange Lutheran 6-3

12. Huntington Beach 2-1

13. Murrieta Mesa 6-3

14. Corona Centennial 6-2

15. Norco 0-2

16. Upland 5-3

17. Beaumont 7-0

18. South Torrance 6-0

19. El Camino Real 5-2

20. Yucaipa 4-4-1

From the archives: Jim Wolf

Jim Wolf, an El Camino Real graduate, is preparing for his 22nd season in the major leagues — as an umpire.

He was a catcher at El Camino Real, and his brother, Randy, became a successful major league pitcher.

Jim has outlasted plenty and become a well-respected MLB umpire. He was working youth games at West Hills Pony baseball early in his career and was hired as a minor league umpire in 1994.


Here’s a story from 2001 when Wolf started filling in at the MLB level before gaining a full-time position.


From the Los Angeles Times, a story on former Venice and Washington State receiver Gabe Marks working to help players deal with mental health issues.

From the NFHS, a story on people needing a wakeup call on sportsmanship.

From the Washington Post, a story on what might be the top high school girls’ basketball team in the nation.

Tweets you might have missed


Until next time...

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