Prep Rally: State high school basketball title games were a joy to watch

Damien's Bradley Xie tries to maintain control while being pressured by Clovis North's Christian Calvillo (right).
(Nick Koza)
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Hi, and welcome to another edition of Prep Rally. My name is Eric Sondheimer. The high school basketball season has ended, but what a two-day event it was in Sacramento for the state championships. Corona Centennial and Sierra Canyon won Open Division championships for boys and girls.

Sights, sounds, memories

Damien players celebrate Division I state title.
(Nick Koza)

It was refreshing to see teenage boys and girls crying again at a sports competition, because winning or losing meant so much. This weekend’s state high school basketball championships in Sacramento was the closest indication yet of a return to normalcy after two years of California being in a hunker down mentality because of COVID-19.


Masks were off; handshakes and hugs were back. For all the ups and downs over the last school year, the debates and arguments, the threats and promises, it was good to finally get back to watching, listening and feeling the special vibes that come with competing at the highest level in high school sports.

Here’s a look at observations from Sacramento and a return to normalcy.

Basketball rewind

It was quite a weekend in Sacramento. On Friday, Northern California teams won the first five games before Damien took the Division I boys’ championships. Here’s the story on a triumph for coach Mike LeDuc, who needed 42 years to win his first title.

Before that it was a long Friday for Southern California teams for boys and girls.

Then Saturday, it was a triumphant time for Centennial boys and Sierra Canyon girls. Sage Hill won a girls’ title. Here’s the story.


Northern California teams finished 7-5 against Southern California teams, which rallied after losing the first five games on Friday.

RJ Smith’s story

RJ Smith of Damien surrounded by sister Kennedy, a star player at Etiwanda, and mother Monica.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Late Tuesday night, senior RJ Smith of La Verne Damien High went into big-brother mode by comforting his sophomore sister, Kennedy Smith of Etiwanda. One earned a trip to play for a state basketball championship in Sacramento on Friday; the other came up one win short.

“She was in my room crying,” RJ said. “We talked. She’s going to be special. This is just a beginning. It’s so rare we were put in this situation. The result didn’t come out the way we wanted. She’s going to be OK. I’m happy for my team. We’re going to Sacramento and make the best of it and have fun.”

A look at the special season for the Smith family.

Chino Hills vs. Centennial

Corona Centennial High’s rise to prominence in boys’ basketball this season has started a debate. The Huskies have been so impressive that the feeling is they are the best team in Southern California since Chino Hills’ 35-0 team in 2016 that was led by the three Ball brothers.

It raises an interesting question: How would Centennial (33-1) do playing against that unbeaten Chino Hills team?


Two people to ask are Steve Baik, the head coach of Chino Hills, and Mike LeDuc, the coach at LaVerne Damien whose Division I state championship team played Centennial this season and was also in the same league with Chino Hills in 2016.

Here are their thoughts.


It will be No. 1 Orange Lutheran taking on No. 2 Servite in a three-game Trinity League baseball series this week. Both schools have displayed impressive pitching early on.

A roundup of top performances from earlier this week.

Here’s the latest top 25 rankings from The Times.

Hart is only 5-5 but the Indians will be one of the top Division 2 teams when the regular season ends. They are starting to get back some of their top-of-the-line pitchers from injuries. Chris Downs, a 6-foot-6 junior, made his season debut Saturday.

Sam DeCarlo vs. Sam DiCarlo

There can’t be anything more amusing than keeping weekly track how two baseball players named Sam DeCarlo and Sam DiCarlo are doing. Yes, they have different last names and play for different schools, but they’re easy to mix up and there’s a family story how they met as babies.


Sam DeCarlo is an infielder for Long Beach Millikan committed to Biola. Sam DiCarlo is a pitcher for Newport Harbor committed to Sonoma State.

Here’s the story provided by Don DeCarlo: “My wife and I took our baby Sam to our nieces (Sam’s first cousin) baptism. There are usually four or five babies that are baptized in a ceremony. So as we sat in church waiting for our niece to be baptized, the priest called out the babies names and we heard Sam DeCarlo. Well it was not Sam DeCarlo but Sam DiCarlo. We got a picture that day but never kept in touch. Fast forward to last summer and we discovered the Sams had been living parallel lives.”

“Nice to meet you, Sam” they said to each other last summer after finally meeting. Apparently the fathers got a bigger kick out of the meeting than the boys.


Villa Park showed why it’s No. 1 in softball after traveling to Bullhead City, Ariz. to win the Dave Kops tournament, defeating Murrieta Mesa 3-1 in the championship game.

Kalia Espere hit a home run and Sydney Somerndike struck out 11 and gave up two hits.

Villa Park is No. 1 in the Southern California top 20 softball rankings. Here’s the link.


Another race, another record for Newbury Park. The foursome of Colin Sahlman, Aaron Sahlman, Lex Young and Leo Young went to New York and set an indoor national record for the 4xmile relay at the New Balance Indoor Nationals.


Here’s a story about what Newbury Park’s athletes were chasing in New York.

The speed was turned on at Redondo Union for a 100 meters race that produce two wind-aided times of 10.37 seconds from Jaelon Barbarin, a junior football player at Simi Valley, and USC-bound Max Thomas of Servite.

Then there was football/baseball/track athlete Austin Overn of Foothill running the 100 in 10.73 seconds in his first-ever track race. He’s headed to USC to play football and baseball.

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An LAUSD story

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MAR. 9, 2022. Portrait of father and sonmManuel, left, and Marcus Droz.
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MAR. 9, 2022. Portrait of father and son Manuel, left, and Marcus Droz. Manuel is the girls’ basketball coach at Santee High. The team won a City Section Division IV title after he had a stroke and his son took over coaching duties . (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The paramedics came within a minute, Marcus Droz remembers.

He’d called 911 when his father, Manuel Droz, head coach of the girls’ basketball team at Santee Education Complex, struggled to keep his balance during a game. Manuel was seated but felt like he would topple.

Santee was down 47-41 against John Burroughs High with four minutes left when 64-year-old Manuel slumped forward, catching himself on Marcus’ arm.

“Marc, I’m really dizzy,” Manuel told his son. “I can’t stand up.”

Referees and players stopped to stare at the sidelines, where Manuel started dry-heaving into a trash can as Marcus, his dad’s assistant coach, dialed for an ambulance. Senior captain Marlisa Pacheco and the other girls gathered around, stunned and fearful, as their coach was rushed to the hospital.

The Santee players had experienced a lifetime’s worth of pain and challenges before they were old enough to vote. Basketball had been an escape, the white Falcons uniform a suit of armor for a team shaping up to have its best season ever.

But on this day, the pain had pierced through. Manuel had suffered a stroke and in the weeks following, the girls came to fight together — to fight for Coach Manny.


Here’s their story of perseverance.


Sean Kelly of Loyola with a kill.
(Brody Hannon)

It’s rivalry week in boys’ volleyball. Loyola will host Mira Costa on Saturday in the first of two scheduled meetings between two schools that thrive on an intriguing sports rivalry.

Many of the players know each other as neighbors. Some Loyola players live in Manhattan Beach. The volleyball match has a long history of bringing out lots of fans to see players raise their game.

Here’s the latest Southern Section polls.

In the City Section, Chatsworth secured a victory over Palisades to stake its claim as the City title favorite.


Notes . . .

Incoming UCLA women’s basketball recruit Kiki Rice from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC was named the national high school player of the year with the Naismith High School Trophy. . . .

Sophomore quarterback Dylan Mills from JSerra is transferring to San Clemente. . . .

Junior Juju Watkins of Sierra Canyon was named the Gatorade state player of the year in girls basketball. . . .

Longtime San Pedro football coach Corey Miller has resigned. . . .

Dillon Lowen, a former defensive coordinator at Nordhoff, has been named the school’s new football coach. .

From the archives: Johnny Tincher

Birmingham catcher Johnny Tincher being interviewed by Eric Sondheimer after 2019 City championship game.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

A three-time City Section champion at Birmingham, catcher Johnny Tincher has become a star playing baseball at Washington. He entered this week as the team’s leading hitter at .395.


During his days at Birmingham, he was known for doing backflips after big victories. And chewing bubble gum.

Here’s a story from 2018.

Forget that he’s only 5 feet 8. He’s always been a great athlete who can run, jump and make plays that top athletes can pull off.


From The Covington News, a story on a basketball team from Georgia losing an appeal after a scoring error cost them a playoff victory.

From the Orange County Register, a story on a baseball coach battling cancer while inspiring his team along the way.


From, a story on former Orange Lutheran and UCLA baseball player Garrett Mitchell.

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Until next time...

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