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High School Team Preview:
Lakewood Artesia High School--(Oct. 12, 1998)

"I've been on both sides of the call by the refs. Sometimes they help you and other times it costs you a game. But what are you going to do? You just go out and do your best.  But it's more fun to win."--Wayne Merino

One point.  A single free throw. One point can make all the difference in the world. Last season Lakewood Artesia High came within one point (60-61) of going to the California State Championship in Division I, but instead they lost to Westchester in the Southern Regional final of the State Tournament.  But for a foul called here or there, a shot missed or made, or an opportunity presented or denied, Artesia would have played Alameda St. Joe's in the Arco Arena in Sacrament and might now be the defending State Champs instead of Westchester.  But that's not how things worked out, and Artesia's young team learned a tough lesson, one that has them determined to make it to the Arrowhead Pond for this year's final game.

Artesia will first have to get  through the tough Southern Section I-AA playoffs where teams like Glendora, Long Beach Poly, Rancho Bernardo, San Bernardino Pacific, El Toro, Los Alamitos, Eisenhower, Upland, Ayala, Simi Valley, Etiwanda,  Long Beach Jordan, Rowland, Fontana, and others are lurking, hoping to knock off Artesia. Whether Wayne Merino's squad will be up to the task only time will tell. But this is one of the best teams he's ever had, in any year.

Coach Merino has been the head coach at Artesia for the last 12 years.  His prior teams with the O'Bannon brothers, Charles and Ed, played in Division II.   Artesia has since moved up to D-IAA in Southern Section, the largest, toughest division in CIF.  Artesia and Merino have won the CIF Southern Section Division II title 3 times, been to Division II finals 8 times, and won the State Division II Championship 3 out of 4 appearances. In Division II, Wayne has won more state titles than another other coach (Russell Otis has two in D-II).  Only Gary McKnight of Mater Dei has as many State titles (3), but no one can really touch Willie West, who has 8.   Wayne knows what it takes to make it to the finals, and he's convinced the team this year has as good a chance as ever.

Prior to coming to Artesia, Wayne coached AAU traveling teams while at he was a student at Cal State Fullerton, a practice he continues to the present, and the past few years, his QBL-Lakewood teams have been the breeding ground for success for most of his Artesia players, and also have provided the opportunity for them during the big July exposure period to play in front of college coaches, stay together as a team, and develop their game.  Wayne is very careful about the events he chooses for his players, and this past summer, QBL appeared in Vegas at the adidas Big Time, the Summer Nike National Championships in San Diego, and the Slam-N-Jam NIT in Long Beach.  

Artesia lost several players to graduation last year, but none of them had the impact of the current players.  Gone are Willie Alford (5'-9" PG) who is at Harvard playing football, Young Im (5'-10" SG) who is at Golden West JC,  James Murdock (5'-11" PG/SG) who is at LBCC,   Jonathon Stokes (6'-2" SG) who transferred mid-year to Crenshaw, and played with them for the last half of the season,  and Jamaal O'Quinn (6'-6" F) who is at Boise State.   But the guys who return this year, while young,  were still the players who got most of the playing time and most of the fan and media attention. Here's who's returning and coming up: 

Andre Hazel (5'-10" Jr. PG)
Marcus Crane (6'-3" So. SG)
Malcohm Heron (6'-5" So. F)
Jon Steffanson (6'-5" Fr. F)
Jason Kapono (6'-8" Sr. G/F)
Apolinar "Amaury" Fernandez (6'-9" So. F)
Ryan Reyes (6'-2: So. PG)
Jack Martinez (6'-8" So. F)
Jamal James (6'-2" So. SG)
Aaron Hamilton (6'-5" Sr. F)
Franklin Matos (6'-3" Fr. PG/SG)

Jason Kapono is definitely the headliner.  Wayne says of Jason simply "He's a basketball player."  When asked if he could elaborate a bit, Wayne said "He's smart, he understands the game like most kids don't. He knows what to do and when to do it.  He is just a basketball player. "  We've seen Jason play a lot, and he's a smart, big-bodied, tough-nosed player, maybe not the best overall athlete, but certainly one of the best in the class, and to top it off, he's just a huge national recruit.   He's listed a ton of schools, and where he will end up is really anyone's guess at this writing.  It's safe to say that Jason will be a great college player, with the potential to play in the NBA.  In high school, Jason is versatile enough to play point, shooting guard, forward, and he can also post up, and Wayne says he'll use him "wherever he's needed."   He can run, shoot, and defend.  We saw Jason hit eight three-pointers in the first half of a game this fall at the Long Beach Fall Hoops Classic.  We've seen him drive in traffic, and for a big guy, he's got a great handle.  He can run the floor, play good defense, drive and shoot, and even pull up for the j, although it's still his set shot from the arc that's most impressive, and he looked especially scary early this summer when he was required to wear that really cool Bill Laimbeer "Phantom of the Opera" face-mask.  He no longer wears the mask, but has bleached his hair blonde and looks pretty hip. In short, there's really nothing Jason can't do on the floor, and wherever he signs, he'll be an immediate impact player.  He wants the State Title, and it's going to take a lot to deny them this year.

The balance of the frontcourt action will be anchored by Apolinar "Amaury" Fernandez, and Jack Martinez. There are probably three or four "big" sophomores (Scott Borchart, Tyson Chandler, Chad Bell,   and a couple of others) but Amaury is certainly one of the best. He's got a great handle, and can, like Jason play anywhere on the court, inside, outside, point to center. He's one of the most polished young players we've ever seen. It's still scary to think just how good he'll get in another two years in high school.   The other forward spot will be handled by Jack Martinez, who hasn't been around a lot this summer, but who's really an inside banger than a step-out-and-hit-the-three guy like Jason or Fernandez. Wayne intends to try to add a post game to Fernandez' repertoire this season, so we'd expect to see Jack playing a little bit of wing as well this year.   Wayne did candidly admit that as good as Martinez is already, he can still use some improvement on his rebounding. 

At the wing spot will be Aaron Hamilton (6'-5" Sr. F), who is one of the best rebounders in the class, a tremendous defender,   with mid-range shot out to about 18' that's been getting better and  more consistent all summer.  He'll play some post, but more at the wing, and right now Aaron is being recruited by some of the California mid-major D-I schools like LMU, USF, San Diego State, and Fullerton.  Backing up Aaron, will probably be Malcohm Heron (6'-5" So. F), a real hustler, who can mix it up and has a real nose for the ball, a solid rebounder, and Jon Steffanson (6'-5" Fr. SG/F), who is a good shooter, with great footwork, and who is a  good, solid defender too.

In the backcourt, the team will look mostly about the same as it did last year. Andre Hazel is a capable, blazing quick, high-energy point guard, maybe not the flashiest of the quick points, but he can distribute the ball, has great court vision, and can drive a little too.  Wayne says he'll also see time at both the one and the two, and describes him as a "playmaker, a really great kid who can change a game."   Backing Andre up at the point, at least when Jason isn't need there, will be Ryan Reyes (6'-2" So. PG), who Wayne describes as a "playmaker, a smart, tough kid" who can play solid defense and has a good handle with fine passing skills.  Another player who might see some time at the point is Franklin Matos (6'-3" Fr. PG/SG), who's very young and will struggle for playing time on this big-time roster, but who will get valuable experience just being around these guys.  At the shooting guard spots will be Jamal James (6'-2" So. SG), a slashing type of player who can bring it from the wing, and who is very athletic, and Marcus Crane (6'-3" So. SG), who is a decent shooter but who will have to step up his defensive intensity and work on his speed drills.

This winter Artesia will,  of course appear,  in their own Best of the West Tournament which will be held from December 26-31, and they'll also play in the Gahr tournament, and in mid-December they'll be in Ft. Meyer's, Florida for a big national tournament.  Artesia will also be appearing in the 1st Annual Adidas/Double Pump MLK Jr. Hoops Festival on January 16, 1998 at Cal State Dominguez Hills where they will play a league contest at 6:00 p.m. against Mayfair.   Then, on January 30, Artesia and Long Beach Poly will also host the "Poly-Artesia Classic" where you'll see Mater Dei v. Canyon, Verbum v. Pasadena,   Compton v. Artesia, and Dominguez v. Poly.   The games will be held at the beautiful new gym on the campus of Southwest LA City College, which seats more than 3,500.  Finally, as a tune-up for CIF playoffs, Artesia will appear in Mater Dei's event, the "Nike Extravaganza, which will be held on February  6, 1999   Nike Extravaganza, where the Artesians will play Nate Hair and JJ Sola's Capo Valley team.

This could be the best Artesia team ever, and they won't let it come down to a single point differential again. You can count on that.   As Wayne Merino told us, "With the State Championship, it always helps to have a little bit of luck, stay injury free, and always play your best basketball every game." 

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