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It's time to salute the basketball players who choose loyalty over opportunity

It's time to salute the basketball players who choose loyalty over opportunity
Wayne Arnold of Dominguez, a four-year player at the same high school, is saluted by teammates. (Nick Koza)

The day the Southern Section basketball playoff pairings are released is the perfect time to salute players who have stayed at the same high school for their entire career rather than played the transfer game.

They refused to abandon ship even when their coach yelled at them or when someone offered free shoes, promised more exposure or guaranteed a championship team.

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Yes, we’ve reached the point in high school basketball where there are so many transfers on top teams that when you find a college-bound, four-year player, he probably deserves a parade in appreciation for his loyalty.

First up is the 17-year-old who should be wearing a Straight Outta Compton T-shirt — 6-foot-4 guard Wayne Arnold of Dominguez. For four years, he’s given his all to coach Jonathan Davis. And in return, Davis has reciprocated.

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“This is about loyalty,” Arnold said. “My mom taught me about loyalty. My coach taught me about loyalty.”

He has led Dominguez to consecutive San Gabriel Valley League championships. He’s averaging 23 points a game and headed to Cal State Fullerton. From the first game, when he scored 38 points and said, “I felt like Kobe,” to the last regular-season game, when he scored 20 points and was cheered by his home fans, Arnold has served as an example of how a player can blossom.

“For me, it’s having a commitment to these kids,” Davis said. “A lot have single-parent households. They look at me almost like a big brother. I look out for them. They’re committed to me and I’m committed to them.”

There’s Brandon Williams of Encino Crespi. He was a state champion as a freshman starter. You lost the bet if you thought he wouldn’t stay for four years. He has a scholarship to Arizona and has come back with a vengeance from knee surgery to be one of the top guards in California in his senior season. Under coach Russell White, he has become the complete student-athlete he wanted to become on and off the court.

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Ditto for teammate Taj Regans, another four-year player He scored 29 points in the regular-season finale Friday when Williams went down with an ankle injury. Regans has sacrificed his scoring potential for the good of the team.

“I know Brandon’s parents and my parents,” Regans said. “We’re big believers in loyalty.”

There’s Sam Clareman of Brentwood. He was a junior varsity player as a freshman. In his junior year this season, he has won two games with last-second shots and a third game by making three free throws with no time left. “He never wavered,” coach Ryan Bailey said.

There’s Jules Bernard of L.A. Windward. When others left during a coaching change, he stayed. Now he’s headed to UCLA.

Perhaps no team deserves the “neighborhood team” label more than Hacienda Heights Los Altos. Six families have had their kids playing together since the third grade. Coach Jeff Lucas and his son, Jarod, the standout junior guard, are among them. He gets to coach a group who met when they were eating cupcakes and Twinkies after games.

“It’s something extra special,” Lucas said. “All our families are close.”

There’s Kendal Frey of Harbor City Narbonne. He played junior varsity as a freshman, then was a key backup on the Gauchos’ City Section runner-up team as a sophomore. He has grown to 6-4, is averaging 15 points and has mastered the little things needed to succeed — pump fake, jump stop, taking a charge.

“He’s had the opportunity to go to other schools but stayed loyal,” Coach Anthony Hilliard said.

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Wes Slajchert, left, and Riley Battin, who have been playing together since third grade, are shown in a photo from sixth grade.
Wes Slajchert, left, and Riley Battin, who have been playing together since third grade, are shown in a photo from sixth grade. (Catherine Battin)

Then there’s Riley Battin and Wes Slajchert, four-year starters for Oak Park, seeded No. 1 in the Division 1 playoffs. Headed to Utah and Dartmouth, respectively, they kept their mouths shut, worked hard, ignored what was happening at other schools and flourished in their neighborhood environment. They’ve known each other since third grade.

“Wes and Riley have been a dream to coach,” Oak Park’s Aaron Shaw said. “They take care of their schoolwork. They’re dependable. They haven’t missed a game. They’re always pushing themselves to be better. They’re always great teammates.”

There are lots of others trying to end high school with a championship. There’s no guarantee it will happen but at least they’re going down with the people they’ve known and trusted and will be their friends for years to come.

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