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High School Team Preview:
Corona Centennial High School--(Oct. 24, 1998)

"I believe defensive pressure is the key to the game, and that with good defensive pressure, good things will happen on offense."--Val Popov, head coach, Corona Centennial.

Not a lot of people would pick Centennial as a favorite in Division I-A last year, or even this year.  But quite a few of their players have been getting individual attention on some traveling squads, and they will be playing at the Oceanview Tournament of Champions from December 7-12 at Oceanview against schools like Crenshaw, Compton, Redondo, Mater Dei, Long Beach Poly,  Serra, Pasadena, LA Fremont, Ayala, Horizon San Diego and other traditionally strong programs.   Somebody obviously thought they were good enough to play with players of the caliber of players from these schools, so  we thought we'd check them out and see if they were for real.  And what we found tells us that they'll be good enough to compete with the big guns, and maybe even catch a few of them sleeping.

Val Popov is the head coach at Corona Centennial, a school with an enrollment of about 2,700 kids (as of last count), located in Riverside County. Centennial played in Division I-A last year, but they might move up to I-AA this season if the enrollment continues to soar. Val has been the head coach since 1991, and he's been coaching at Centennial since 1989. He graduated from La Quinta High in Westminster where he played under coach Bill Reynolds. Val then attended college at Redlands University where he played as a guard for two years,  from 1974-76. Upon graduating, he got his start coaching as an assistant at Claremont Men's College which was then affiliated with both NAIA and NCAA Division III (it's now only D-III we're told), from 1976-78. In 1978 he moved over to Villa Park where he did two stints, from 1978-79 and then again from '82-86.  In between he was an assistant at Newport Harbor High with Jerry DeBusk (who is now at State Division II Champion Santa Margarita) from '80-'82; from 1986 until 1989, he was the head coach at Foothill High in Tustin. In 1989, he finally moved over to Corona Centennial.  He's married with two children, and for the immediate future, has no plans to leave Centennial, although if the right college job opened itself up, he'd consider a move. 

Centennial plays in the Mountain View League, which features such teams as Corona High, Jurupa Valley, La Sierra, Murrieta Valley and Norco. Last season, Centennial finished 14-10, behind league champs Murrieta Valley, and they lost to JW North in the first round of the Southern Section playoffs. Popov describes last year as "streaky."  He said that they started strong, then hit a losing stretch in the middle of the season, but ended up finishing 4-1 at the end of the season, beating Murrieta Valley at home, the only team to beat them at home last season. Popov describes the team this year as "still young, but experienced."   Whether that experience will be enough to get them past MV and Brian Wethers (6'-4" Sr. SG) who has committed to play at Cal and is arguably the best player in the area, only time will tell.

Here's the roster. Again, keep in mind that this is being written about a month before the start of official practice, so the roster isn't completely set, and evaluations are still continuing, and there will be some additions to the roster.  But for now, here's who we're pretty certain will be on the varsity this season:

Jamaal William (6'-5" So. PF/C)
Demetreous Ross (6'-0" Sr. PG)
Bryan Gonzales (6'-4" So. SG/SF)
David Sybesma (6'-2" So. SG/SF)
Bryan Williams (6'-1" So. SG/SF/PF)
Stephen Seales (5'-10" Jr. PG)
Steve Adams (6'-5" Sr. PF/C)
Ira Peppers (5'-9" Jr. PG/SG/SF)
J.R. Reese (6'-3" Fr. SG/SF/SF)
Josh Barnes (5'-10" Jr. SG)
Chris Cablayan (6'-4" Jr. PF/C)

This is not a very tall team, but they are quick, and loaded with good guards who play tenacious defense, and they've got a ton of shooting talent, which they'll need considering some of the teams they'll be facing.  At the starting point spot is Demetreous Ross, a very strong, quick player, who is vastly improved this season, and he had a great summer. Ross has shown great judgment, makes good decisions and generally pushes the ball on the break and can finish. He's more of a smooth type of player than a slasher or pounder, a very poised floor general. He's getting a lot of D-I attention, and will be making an official visit to Long Beach State among others. Ross is more of a true "pass-first" kind of point.  Sharing the point will be Seales, a junior with a capable handle, who is more of a slasher and penetrator, who also can rebound very well too for someone only 5'-10".  "He's got great timing, and can jump really high, so he ends up outrebounding players a lot taller than he is," Val told us.  We'd look for both of these guys to be out on the floor, working the one-two spots on occasion.

Centennial will probably go with a three guard backcourt, and we'd also expect to see Gonzales, Sybesma, or Bryan Williams out on the wing, along with Peppers, Reese or Josh Barnes.  Did we say this team has a ton of guard talent?  Gonzales is a true shooter, and a versatile player with a good handle, who's real skill is defense. Val thinks he can really play anwhere, from the one to the four, but we'd expect to seem him mostly out on a wing bombing away from outside of 17'. "He's truly talented, and at times if we need a bigger guy bringing the ball up at the one, we'll use Gonzales and send our smaller guys out to the wings," Popov said. Gonzales is also an effective banger and rebounder inside, and maybe Val is right, you might just see him anywhere at any time depending on the situation.  Sybesma is another good defender,who can shoot from inside or out. Val describes him as a "smart player who makes good decision." Bryan Williams is another of those inside-outside guys, and he'll play anywhere from the two to the four. He runs the floor very well, pushes on the break, and can take it to the hole and finish. He may also just be the most athletic player on the team and moves well with or without the ball.

J.R. Reese is yet another inside-outside guy, who is listed as a shooting guard, small forward and a power forward. While he's only a freshman, Val is extremely high on him, and thinks he shows tremendous promise. He's 6'-3" now, and will get bigger, so the goal with him would be to work on his perimeter shooting and his post skills for the next season or two. He's a very physical player, intense, hardworking, and just sort of soaks up everything like a sponge. "I think he's going to be one of the keys to our future, and will fit in with our system very well."  Also at the guard spot, more of a two than anything else will be Peppers. Val says of him, "He's a very important part of our team. He may not have the best handle or be the best shooter, but he's the guy we put in when we want things to happen.  He's a great defender, quick,  and will spark the team with his defense and can shoot pretty well from the perimeter.  Finally, Josh Barnes is another young guard with a decent handle and improved shooting, who will come in off the bench.

Inside at the post, we'd look for Jamaal Williams, a young, powerful player who was All-County second team last season as a freshmen. He averaged 22 points per game and 12 rebounds per game, and is a legitimate D-I prospect. He's played for Pat Barrett's SCA teams for the last couple of years and has gotten some great exposure.  Williams is very mobile, an excellent rebounder with a nice touch around the basket, and while he can step outside and hit the occasional 15-footer, he's really much better inside. He'll be getting some help from Steve Adams, who was the MVP of the jv team last season. Adams is an excellent rebounder, and a very strong inside player with good high post moves and decent footwork, and he's a pretty good passer from the high post to a cutter, and we'd look for him to get some significant time. Finally we'd look for Chris as a reserve forward/center, and he's another guy up from the jv, a good athlete who is learning the game and will be expected to pick up a starting spot next season.

Centennial opens up on December 2 at Eisenhower, followed by a tame against East Valley Redlands on December 4.  Then from December 7-12, they'll be down at Oceanview for the Tournament of Champions.  From December 15-17, they'll be hosting their own tournament, the "Centennial Holiday Classic," an 8 team tournament featuring teams like Moreno Valley, Norco, Santiago, and some other mostly local teams.  Then from December 26-30, they'll be at the Orange Holiday Classic at Chapman University which is hosted by Orange High School, a tournament which has been a true classic for more than 30 years.  Other teams coming will be Mater Dei, Santa Margarita and others. We'll try to get the lowdown on this one soon.

Whether this team is quick enough, has good enough defense and good enough shooting to be able to challenge some of the more traditional perennial powers in Division I remains to be seen.  We'll be looking for them at the TOC where they'll try to make some news. 

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