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Prep Rally: High school basketball players to watch

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Prep Rally. My name is Eric Sondheimer. Basketball is a month away from starting, so let’s start taking a look at some players to watch. First one up is senior guard Benny Gealer of Rolling Hills Prep. He’s poised to have a huge season.

Don’t underestimate Benny Gealer

Benny Gealer of Rolling Hills Prep is expected to be one of the top point guards this season.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

The Rolling Hills Prep basketball team gathered along Palos Verdes Drive in San Pedro for their late afternoon conditioning run. Point guard Benny Gealer took off his shirt and teammates followed in a leisurely jog along the sidewalk as cars passed by.

When they came back down the street passing under the shade of a pine tree, Gealer was leading the pack of nine players, occasionally turning his head to make sure everyone kept up the pace. You could sense his competitiveness and leadership.

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When the basketball season begins next month, there’s already early signs that Gealer will be one of the Southland stars. He scored 32 points a week ago in a fall basketball victory over Bellflower St. John Bosco. On Saturday, he committed to Stanford.

“He’s gotten stronger, taller, faster,” coach Harvey Kitiani said. “He’s showing more athleticism and he works so hard with his training to make that happen.”

When last on the court, Gealer was scoring 28 points to lead Rolling Hills to the Southern Section Division 2AA championship in a 67-56 win over favored Hacienda Heights Los Altos. He averaged 19.8 points and 6.3 assists. He has grown to 6 feet 1 with larger shoulders.

Here’s a profile on how Gealer has been getting better and better.

Sierra Canyon keeps adding players

No basketball team has had a better off season than Sierra Canyon when it comes to adding players via the transfer portal. Sorry, there’s no transfer portal for high school but it does seem like the Trailblazers are picking and choosing like there is a transfer portal.

Joining returnees Amari Bailey, Bronny James, Ramel Lloyd and Shy Odom are Kijani Wright, a 6-foot-9 senior from Windward who’s committed to USC; sophomore guard Isaiah Elohim from Heritage Christian and 6-8 senior Jeremiah Nyarko from St. John Bosco. Mike Price, who played last season at Ribet, is also enrolled at Sierra Canyon but it remains to be seen if he can gain eligibility this season because he played summer ball on a team that included a Sierra Canyon coach and you’re not allowed to follow a coach to the new school.

Sierra Canyon looks like a certain preseason No. 1. Defending Southern Section Open Division champion Corona Centennial also looks strong, along with Mater Dei, Etiwanda and Harvard-Westlake.

From boys to men

Joey Santorico of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

On Aug. 8, 2018, eight freshman football players at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame began their participation in a project. The idea was once a year to take their photo to show how they changed during four years of high school.

My participation was to interview them to see how much their personality, confidence and goals changed over four seasons.

No one changed more than Jonas Baklayan, who was a 5-foot-11 14-year-old quarterback with no facial hair and little to say when it all started. If you watch the initial video interview, it’s pure comedy.

“What are you excited about?” I asked.

Staring into the camera somewhat intimidated, he said: “I’m excited for playing football and also excited for a . . . hold on. Can we repeat this?”

“High school starts next week. You’ve been waiting for this moment. What excites you?” I asked, trying to make him feel a little more comfortable.

“I’m excited for doing what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, which is ... Jeez, what am I supposed to say?”

Baklayan broke out a smile.

“What are your expectations?”

“My expect ... my expect ...”

That’s as far as he got as he couldn’t pronounce expectations and just started giggling.

“This will make good [video] by your senior year,” I told him.

Baklayan ended up being one of only three players to make it through four seasons playing football at Notre Dame. He joined Joey Santorico and Troy Littwin as survivors through the ups and downs of high school life. The other five either stopped playing football or transferred out of Notre Dame.

On Aug. 4, 2021, I returned to Notre Dame for exit interviews. Baklayan no longer plays quarterback. He’s a 6-foot senior defensive back with a beard, a 4.1 grade-point average, and far more confidence talking about his aspirations and experiences.

Here’s a look at four years of changing photos and changing personalities.

Harrison Allen chooses fashion career

Everyone else is playing in slow motion. For Harrison Allen, who seems to glide more than he runs, this game moving at a different speed for him.

In the third quarter of Dorsey High’s contest against View Park on Friday night, the senior running back catches a kickoff and twirls his way through overmatched red-and-black jerseys like he’s practicing a ballet routine. As he’s finally ran down around the 40-yard line, his teammates jump up and down on the sidelines in an outpouring of glee reserved for teammates who are simply special.

“That’s my boy Harrison Allen,” said freshman offensive lineman Andre Johnson. “You’re gonna see him on Saturdays in a couple of years.”

For anyone catching even the slightest glimpse of Allen run — say, him taking Dorsey’s first play from scrimmage for a 40-yard touchdown — they would assume he’d be showing out on college fields in the years to come. That’s the conventional path.

But it isn’t Allen’s. He’s pursuing a career in fashion after graduation.

“I feel like it was definitely expected of me to be [Division I], go to college,” he said. “But I just want to do my own wave … do what I feel was best for me.”

Football is in Allen’s DNA, said Brian Hunter, who drove from San Diego to watch him play Friday. Allen’s uncle is legendary running back Marcus Allen, who played football at Lincoln High with Hunter and Allen’s father, Harold. The senior started playing at 8 years old and was a “Pop Warner sensation,” according to head coach Stafon Johnson.

Here’s a profile on Allen.

Explaining playoff format

St. John Bosco players and coaches celebrating bowl victory in 2019.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Get ready for culture shock when the Southern Section announces its football playoff brackets after the end of the regular season at the end of this month.

For years, there was a policy to avoid matching league teams against each other until the semifinals. That ends because the Southern Section is switching to a true seeding regardless whether an opponent comes from the same league in the first round. Calpreps.com computer rankings will be used. There will be 216 playoff berths covering 14 divisions.

Here’s the link to everything you need to know about how the playoffs will be decided.

Football rewind

Serra running back Kai Honda lowers his head and braces for impact from a pack of Chaminade defenders.
(Luis Sinco)

Gardena Serra came away with a 16-12 Mission League football victory over Chaminade, overcoming a quarterback who couldn’t pass, COVID-19 issues and injuries. Here’s the report.

There was a huge upset in the City Section, with Huntington Park handing Garfield its first defeat 30-29. Here’s a look at the unpredictable City Section season and big games ahead.

The best freshman in Southern California this season could be defensive end Weston Port of San Juan Hills. He has 9 1/2 sacks.

Top 25 rankings

A look at The Times’ top 25 high school football teams in the Southland.

Rk. SCHOOL (W-L) Last week | Next game (last rank)

1. MATER DEI (5-0); def. Orange Lutheran, 55-16; vs. Santa Margarita (at Santa Ana Stadium), Friday; 1

2. SERVITE (7-0); def. Santa Margarita, 48-21; vs. JSerra (at Orange Coast College), Thursday; 3

3. ST. JOHN BOSCO (6-1); def. JSerra, 44-7; at Orange Lutheran (at Orange Coast College), Friday; 2

4. CORONA CENTENNIAL (7-0); def. Corona Santiago, 69-14; at Norco, Friday; 4

5. MISSION VIEJO (6-1); def. La Mesa Helix, 38-21; at Tesoro, Friday; 7

Here’s the link to remaining teams.

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City Section Hall of Fame

City Section Hall of Fame class.
(City Section)

Rod Martin played football for Los Angeles Hamilton High, USC, the Los Angeles Raiders and the Oakland Raiders. He became an All-Pro linebacker. Among his teammates through the years were Jack Tatum, Marcus Allen, Jim Plunkett, John Matuszak, Lester Hayes, Art Shell, Dave Dalby, Todd Christensen and Raymond Chester. It goes on and on. He played with some of the best in NFL history.

He earned his own special place in the hearts of Raider Nation by becoming the only player in NFL history to make three interceptions in a Super Bowl. It happened in 1980 against the Philadelphia Eagles and quarterback Ron Jaworski.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I just thought I needed to get one of those passes that day.”

As much joy as he remembers from winning Super Bowl XIV, another special day happened on Sunday when he was inducted into the City Section Hall of Fame for the class of 2020-21.

Here’s a profile.

History

Dwayne Polee II (Left0, Dwayne Polee III and Dwayne Polee I at City Section Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

At Sunday City Section Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Dwayne Polee I, the former Manual Arts basketball standout, was honored. It allowed me time to take a photo that will be historic one day.

Polee was the City Section player of the year in 1981. His son’s son, Dwayne II, was the City Section player of the year at Westchester in 2010. Dwayne II now has a 6-year-old son, Dwayne III, who already looks tall and it will be interesting if one day he becomes the third Polee to become a City player of the year.

Giants vs. Dodgers divides families

Sylmar baseball coach Ray Rivera (left) is a Giants fan. His wife, Lupe, is a Dodger fan.
Sylmar baseball coach Ray Rivera (left) is a San Francisco Giants fan. His wife, Lupe, is a Dodger fan. Their family will be divided this weekend.
(Rivera family)

Call it the week where families are going to be divided. That’s what happens when the Giants play the Dodgers, and it’s going to be on the largest scale yet because the best-of-five series that started Friday is the first time the two teams have played against each other in the NL playoffs.

An example of the division includes Sylmar High baseball coach Ray Rivera, a Giants fan, and his wife, Lupe, a Dodgers fan.

“The smack talk has already begun,” Rivera said last week.

The Riveras will handle everything in the family home with respect and social distancing.

“She has her side of the living room, I have mine,” Rivera said. “Literally a house divided.”

That’s going to be the scene for plenty of families.

Cross country

Newbury Park's Colin Sahlman (left) pursued teammate Lex Young at the Arcadia Invitational.
Newbury Park’s Colin Sahlman (left) pursued teammate Lex Young at the Arcadia Invitational.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Newbury Park’s domination in cross country continued on Saturday at the Clovis Invitational at Woodward Park, the course for the CIF state championships.

The boys’ team set a course record, taking the first four spots. Colin Sahlman finished first in 14:29.4, followed by Leo Young (14:33.2), Lex Young (14.34.6) and Aaron Sahlman (14:43.5).

In the girls’ race, Buchanan edged Newbury Park for the team title, but Newbury Park’s Sam McDonnell won in 17:02.1. Ventura freshman Sadie Englehardt was second in 17:02.3.

Girls’ volleyball

Marymount, ranked No. 1 in California, upheld its reputation by winning the GEICO Girls’ Volleyball Invitational 3-1 in Chandler, Ariz., over Hamilton.

Stanford-bound Elia Rubin led Marymount. Stanford-bound Kelly Belardi had 10 digs, 47 assists and one block playing setter.

Mira Costa made it to the championship match of the Redondo Union tournament before losing to San Diego Cathedral Catholic.

Sad story

By many accounts, Marvin Mires has made a yearly impact coaching boys’ soccer and girls’ lacrosse at Downey for 10 years. He has focused on preparing his students for college and teaching them life lessons.

But on Friday, the school district announced he had been dismissed as coach for both programs. It’s related to a mistake he made last summer when he was responsible for taking a group of students on a hiking trip in San Bernardino. Two students went lost and others had to be helped off the mountain. All were eventually found and were not injured.

The district said in a statement it could no longer wait to see whether the district attorney might file charges against Mires. He will continue teaching at Downey.

Coaches are always taking risks when they take students on trips, whether it’s to Las Vegas for a tournament or a field trip off campus. They are held accountable for any problem. It’s just sad that a coach who was very important to the Downey community will have to move on because a resolution could not be found that would have benefited all involved.

Notes . . .

Pitcher Jack Kirrer from Mater Dei has committed to Cal. . . .

Pitcher Jaden Noot of Sierra Canyon has committed to LSU. . . .

Pitcher Tristan Lamiason from JSerra has committed to San Diego. . . .

Catcher Bren Wilkinson of Cypress has committed to Cal State Northridge. . . .

Outfielder Andrew Citron from Harvard-Westlake has committed to Georgetown. . . .

Pitcher Jack Ross from Edison has committed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. . . .

Freshman pitcher Zach Strickland from Maranatha has committed to UCLA.

Heritage Christian guard Malik Moore has committed to Pepperdine. . . .

Ella Parker of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, one of the top junior softball players in California, has committed to Oklahoma. She’s the niece of Dodger manager Dave Roberts. . . .

Guard Jason Hart Jr. of St. Bernard has committed to Long Beach State. . . .

Linebacker Jacob Manu of Servite has committed to Arizona. . . .

From the archives: Ryan Stevens

Former Chaminade QB Ryan Stevens ranked No. 2 in passing in NCAA Division III at Johns Hopkins.
(Johns Hopkins)

Ryan Stevens had a glittering grade-point average at West Hills Chaminade. He also never backed down when there was a battle to start at quarterback. He’s now a junior standout at Johns Hopkins and was ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division III in passing going into last week with 1,857.

Here’s a story from 2016 when Stevens directed Chaminade to a 50-14 victory over Long Beach Poly. He beat out Brady White, who transferred in, for the starting position. He passed for 2,638 yards as a junior, leading the Eagles to a 9-2 record. As a senior in 2018, he passed for 1,858 yards.

He’s getting the most out of his priorities _ academics and athletics _ at Johns Hopkins. He has passed for 300 or more yards in four of five games. Through games of Oct. 2, he was directing the highest scoring offense in any NCAA division at 59.8 points.

Recommendations

From the Washington Post, a story on how vaccine resistance could threaten high school sports season.

From the San Jose Mercury News, a story on one of the state’s best guards committing to St. Mary’s.

From the Daily Journal, a profile on the journey on former Long Beach Poly quarterback Matt Corral.

From the Seattle Times, a profile on former Hollywood Bernstein coach Masaki Matsumoto.

Tweets you might have missed

Until next time...

Have a question, comment or something you’d like to see in a future Prep Rally newsletter? Email me at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latsondheimer.

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