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SoCalHoops High School Report

High School Team Preview:
Mater Dei High School--(Oct. 27, 1998)

"I'm just so pleased with the progress this group of young men has made as players and people. They are great players and will be just a pleasure to be around." --Gary McKnight, Mater Dei head coach.

Mater Dei is one of those High School superpowers that sometimes defies description. What else would you call a team that carries close to 18 players on it's squad, has a coaching staff of five, and moves around the county,   state and country like an invading army.  We'd call it a truly legendary program.   And that's not just hyperbole.

Mater Dei is what most high school basketball programs strive to be.  Heck, there are some colleges who strive to be like Mater Dei.     Santa Ana Mater Dei has achieved records and accomplishments that others can only dream about.  They've won 12 CIF Southern Section Titles in Division I-A; they've won 4 Division I Southern Regional Titles in the State Championship Tournament, and they've won Three State Championships (1987, 1990, and 1995).  Next to Crenshaw, that's the most wins ever in Division I.  How about a coach who had a 454-35 record in 16 years prior to last season, who improved his record to 475 wins in 17 years.  Coach Gary McKnight is one of the winningest records in all of high school basketball, outdone only by a very select few coaches, perhaps only by Morgan Wooten of legendary DeMatha in Hyattsville, Maryland.  In fact, other than Wooten,   McKnight may now have the second-best won-loss record of any other currently active coach.  Last year he added another 21 wins to his record, and that was an "off" year in which Mater Dei, with a young team, was rebuilding.  For most teams, 21 wins would be a major accomplishment.  Heck, there are a lot of CIF schools in the lower divisions who don't even play  21 games a year.

Gary McKnight is starting his 17th year of coaching at Mater Dei, and he couldn't be any happier. "I just love what I'm doing here.  The administration, the fans and everyone at the school is just so supportive and positive about the program.  And we've had such great success, it's been just fantastic."    Gary told us that he always wanted to get into coaching, even at an early age, and he's coached just about everywhere, from youth leagues to college. A graduate of San Clemente High, he played baseball at Saddleback College,  then went to Cal State Fullerton, and did some graduate work at Chapman University. In the late 1970's he began coaching as an assistant to Bill Mulligan at Chapman. He was then an assistant to Jim Harris at Ocean View High for a few years, ultimately moving over to become Mater Dei's head basketball coach in 1982.  Mater Dei has seen some pretty impressive players come through the doors, and Gary has coached most of them, including players like   LaRon Ellis, Reggie Geary, Miles Simon, Schea Cotton,  Kevin Augustine, and others. He coached Jason Quinn, currently an assistant in his 5th year at Mater Dei.

And Gary didn't do it alone either.  He's had constant assistance from Dave Taylor, who is also going into his 17th season as his lead assistant coach. "I feel like I've spent my whole life with Dave.  He's just been invaluable to the program,  to me and the players, and he's like a part of my family."  This year, there are several other assistant coaches as well, including John Tufo who is in his second year with the team; Mark Soderberg, also a second year assistant, Brendan Mostman, now in his 4th year, and of course Jason Quinn. "I looked around at most of the good college programs, and great high school programs," Gary told us yesterday, "and what I saw was that most successful teams had a player-to-coach ratio of about two-to-one, and the best teams have sort of 'personal coaches' for each of the starters, someone who can give a player almost individualized attention during practice and during game situations."   But Gary was also quick to point out  that the committee system of coaching also must have limits: "Of course, during a game or timeout or other strategy session, those coaches have to know when to speak, and when to let one head coach do the talking.  We've got it down to a science here at Mater Dei, and the beauty of having this many good assistants is that it frees me up to do the things that I need to do to focus on making us a better program and our players better people."

And in case you didn't know it, Mater Dei plays in the South Coast League with Capistrano Valley, Dana Hills, Mission Viejo, San Clemente, and Trabuco Hills.  They last won a CIF State Championship in 1995 when they defeated Oakland Fremont 71-67, but two years ago, the team was almost as good, finishing with a 32-3 record,  undefeated in league play, winning a Southern Section Division I-A title, and winding up ranked by USA Today at No. 12 in the country.  But that was, as they say then, and this is now.  After that 1996-97 season, twelve seniors graduated, including Kevin Augustine; Schea Cotton had returned to St. John Bosco the year before. And they had some players transfer to other schools,  like Troy Sims, a 6'-2" senior guard last year, who left for Ocean View.

The team was very young last season.   They had only three seniors, and none of them had ever been starters.  When the season finally opened, the starters consisted of two juniors, a freshman, and two sophomores.  The sixth man off the bench was a sophomore.  One of the best shooters on the team was a freshman. And other than freshman Erik Soderberg, who was then 6'-7" and two 6'-6" players in Mike Bayer and Cedric Bozeman, the average height of the team was about 6'-2"  or under.  So when everyone predicted that it would be a "down" or "rebuilding" year for Mater Dei, no one questioned the wisdom such statements, including most of the coaching staff.

And even coach McKnight said he would be"more realistic" about his goals for the team last year. There were no predictions of section titles or state championships.  In December, McKnight scheduled the team to appear at a tournament up in the San Luis Obispo-Lompoc area rather than appear in the traditional high profile tournaments which Mater Dei had been playing in for years. [Not that there's anything wrong with the tourney they attended, it just was not the sort of event that Mater Dei had been typically attending with it's more powerful teams].  So what did Mater Dei do last season in their "down" year?  Well, for starters, they played in the 1st Annual John R. Wooden Invitational High School Classic at the Pond, and pounded Crespi, a Mission League team which was also considered to be on the rise,  by a score of 61-43.  So much for the start to a "down" year.   And while they were not undefeated during the season, they were seeded No. 2 in the Southern Section playoffs in Division I-A in their region, and finished with a 21-8 record on the season.  In the first round,  they beat Damien 69-44.  In the second round they beat San Clemente 70-57.  In the quarterfinals, they defeated Arlington 71-63.

But in the semi-finals, it looked like Gary McKnight had been correct when he said at the beginning of the season that last year's team was one of the most "beatable" Mater Dei teams he could recall, and San Bernardino Pacific proved the point, but only by a single point, beating Mater Dei 70-69, and halting Mater Dei's streak of consecutive CIF Southern Section boys basketball championships at six.

Pretty impressive for a "down" year, if you ask us.   Mater Dei used the experience as a rebuilding year, received some new freshmen, a really tall transfer,  and this year, they're back, and from the looks of the roster, they'll be back for many years to come. 

Here's the roster for 1998-99:

Bryan McKnight (5'-11" Sr. F)
Steve Henderson (6'-5" Jr. SF/PF)
Geoff McKnight (5'-11" Jr. PG)
Imran Sufi (5'-10" Sr. PG)
Derrick Mansell (6'-2" Sr. PG)
Travis Kasper (6'-0" Sr. SG/PG)
Ricky Porter (6'-2" So. SG/SF)
Cedric Bozeman (6'-6" So. SF/SG/PG)
Steve Scoggin (6'-0" Jr. SG/PG)
J.J. Johnson (6'-1" Jr. SG)
Brian Baker (6'-0" So. PG/SG)
Jamal Sampson (6'-10" So. C)
Mike Strawberry (6'-4" Fr. SF)
Mike Bayer (6'-7" Sr. PF)
Adam Tancredi (6'-9" So. C)
Christian McGuigan (6'-3" Jr. SG/SF)
Erik Soderberg (6'-9" So. C)
Chris Mello (6'-5" Sr. F)

That's a lot of players. This is a team filled with stars or potential stars and more than a few who will wind up as role players, which is what you'd expect on a team which is carrying 18 players.  Eighteen players is a lot on any squad, and with 5 coaches, they'll have to bring their own chairs to some games.  Oh, did we mention that this is a very deep team?    Most of the role players on this squad would probably start on most other high school teams. 

As for starters this year, at the point, we'd look for Derrick Mansell, with Imran Sufi providing most of the backup. Mansell is about as good a point as you can find on the west coast this season, and he's truly one of the best defensive players we've seen. "He's as good a player as I've ever coached," said McKnight. "And he's just a wonderful young man."  Derrick can penetrate and dish, and has a great handle and excellent court vision, and an excellent shot, and he also played the two a little bit last year. Derrick is looking currently at Utah and Colorado State principally, but coach McKnight believes that he'll be a spring signee.   Derrick will  be backed up by Imran, a smooth, unselfish player who has great passing skills and nice shooting touch, and he played a little bit of shooting guard last season, but we'd look for him almost exclusively at the point this season. Also vying for playing time will be Geoff McKnight and Travis Kasper, who will also be one of those great situational role players at the two spot. By the way, Travis' dad Steve is instrumental in helping coach McKnight put on the Nike Extravaganza.  Also trying to get into the action will be Brian Baker, a young player who made the Top 100 Underclassmen at the SuperStars Camp this summer in San Diego. Brian is a wonderful player, but he'll probably be a role player this year just by virtue of the depth of talent, as will J.J. Johnson, another young player who is just starting to develop his game.

Oh, and if you thought Geoff McKnight's name sounded familiar, that's because it is, and he and his older brother are following in the footsteps of their older brother Clay who is starting at UOP this year as a junior.   In fact, Gary and his wife have 5 sons, and even though Geoff and Bryan's true sport is not basketball (Geoff is a star baseball and soccer player, while Bryan is a scratch golfer and football player, and will probably get a D-I golf scholarship) both of them wanted to play for their dad, Bryan for his senior year, and Geoff just to check it out. We wouldn't expect them to get a lot of playing time, but then when your dad is the coach, well why not?  Gary's really proud that his sons want to play for him. "I think this will be great. They may not see a lot of playing time, but I think they are just fantastic kids, and we'll have some fun this year."

There are a couple of guys though who will get a lot of playing time: One of them is Cedric Bozeman (spelled with a "z" Gary says, not an "s" like we and others spelled it last season).  "Cedric is probably the single best player I've ever coached.  He's as good as anyone, probably better than Schea Cotton at this age. He's a talented athlete and a talented person," says Gary.  "He's going to be a high D-I player, perhaps the best we've ever produced at Mater Dei, and that includes Kevin Augustine, Miles Simon, anyone."  Cedric is only a sophomore, but we'd expect to see him sharing the starting role at the 3 spot, perhaps with Christian McGuigan, the "zone buster" who was an on & off starter last season.

At the two, we'd expect to see Steve Scoggin get the starting role. Steve did very well last year, has great range and a fine touch with excellent foot positioning on his shot, all the way out to three-point range. He's also got a decent handle and can, when necessary bring the ball up. He runs the break well, and can finish. Steve was invited to the Nike Camp this past summer in Indianapolis and impressed a lot of people. He also impressed the selection committee at the Team USA Development Camp which selected the players who traveled to Moscow for the World Youth games (the team that won the event with Casey Jacobsen at the two spot). Steve was an alternate to the team, one of only three, and it was quite an impressive accomplishment for a rising junior to receive the nomination. Backing up Scoggin at the two, we'd look for any number of players, including Bozeman, Ricky Porter, Brian Baker, or even McGuigan.   And since the only one in this group we haven't covered so far is Ricky, here's the story: "He's a player," says Gary, and we don't think he has in mind the common colloquial usage of that term. He means it in a real basketball sense. "Ricky is very good.  He's got an excellent handle, and plays real tenacious defense," Gary told us.  Unfortunately though, he'll be a supporting member of the cast this year, but with his talent to slash to the basket and use his quick first step, we're certain that he'll see enough minutes to help his development as a player for the next two seasons after this one; remember, he's only a sophomore.

At the four spot, we'd look for Mike Bayer.  Last season, he was required to play out of position a lot, but with the development of at least three true centers this year,  and some great shooting guard talent, Mike can return to his natural position at the high post/perimeter. He's a great inside-outside player with a very accurate and dependable 15' shot, and a great rebounder too and we'd look for him to average somewhere around 16-17 points per game this year.  Mike Strawberry is another player who will also see time at the 3/4 position, but he's more of a four right now.  "He may not be better than Schea was at the same age, but he reminds me most of Schea Cotton.  He's a great kid, really smart and he knows the game."  And he can jump, pass, run the break, dunk and shoot.  In short, he's a complete player, and the only problem will be getting him enough minutes to keep him happy.  Sure, he's only a freshman, but he's one great freshman, and if you haven't had the opportunity to see him play you'll get plenty over the next four years. "He will be a backup this year at the 3 or 4 spot, but next year he'll be a definite starter," said McKnight.  Also at the four spot, we'd expect to see a little of Chris Mello. Chris is a returning varsity player from last year's team who is a quick slashing type of player, who will be a role player for most of the season--anywhere else he'd be an automatic starter, but he'll get his share of minutes too.

This team will also excel at the center position. This is probably the youngest part  of the team, but it's certainly also, as it should be, the tallest.  Jamal Sampson, at 6'-10" is the biggest, and he's a developing young player who arrived without much in the way of skills or finesse as a transfer from last year's State Champion Westchester Comet team. Jamal didn't really see any playing time at Westchester, and last year there was a reason for that. "When I saw him play during the summer, I had my doubts about whether he would be on the varsity, or should spend a year on the jv team," said Gary.  "But with the tremendous improvement he's made over the summer and this fall in conditioning, he's demonstrated that he can play with anyone. I think he will be a major player with us this season," said Gary.  "Jamal is working hard, has developed great habits, has good footwork and is maturing nicely," coach McKnight observed. 

Jamal probably won't start at center. We'd expect that task to go to Erik Soderberg, who started about half the games last year as a freshman. Erik has put on some weight, and is about 210 lbs. right now, strong and can hold his position in the post against even the strongest opponents. He's developed a nice touch around the basket and can even step out and hit the short j.  Which is not to say that he doesn't need to be stronger on defense, because he does, but he's developed into a true D-I prospect and in about two years we'd expect that he'll hit over seven feet (his dad Mark is about 6'-10" too).  Finally, completing the troica of huge talent on the frontline, will be Adam Tancredi, who at 6'-9" has the power and capcity to play at the varsity level, but he may end up playing jv some during the season and then get called up for the varsity during playoffs.  Adam has slimmed down a bit over the summer and is a really skilled player and we'd expect that he'll get some time this season.

As you can see, this team is at least three, and sometimes four players deep at every position, so it's no wonder that there's at least one coach per position on the floor, since just managing time for these guys to develop a good rotation will be like managing a small army.  Gary is very happy with the current system of multiple coaches and wouldn't change it if he could. "It's great, because most of the coaches also teach here, so it provides us with continuity and an opportunity to maintain contact with the players all day, and in a different setting than just basketball."

So where does a team like Mater Dei spend the preseason getting ready?  Well, the first place you'll find them is at Glendora High School on December 2, where they will play against Gary's alma mater, San Clemente in a tripleheader exhibition contest.

Then they'll be at the 2nd Annual John R. Wooden High School Classic where they'll face Glendora in what will be a great matchup of the shooting guards. Coach LeDuc told us last week when we interviewed him for the Glendora preview, "I just hope they take it easy on us. I hear they are really good."    We've heard from several people though that Mater Dei also feels the same way, given the ability of Casey Jacobsen's and Chris Clark to just take over a game.   Should be a fun one to see and we wouldn't miss it for anything.

From December 7th through 12th, Mater Dei will be at the Ocean View Tournament of Champions.  We've already listed the participants in that one numerous times, but at the risk of sounding repetitive,  the teams participating are Fontana, Ayala, El Modena, Santa Barbara, Crenshaw, Pasadena, Long Beach Poly, Mater Dei, Corona Centennial, Long Beach Jordan, Edison Huntington Beach, Redondo, Morningside, Serra, LA Fremont, A.B. Miller, St. John Bosco, Compton, San Diego Horizon, and there's a possibility that others might also be pulled in if the event expands further.

Following theat they'll be at the Las Vegas Reebok Holiday Classic from the 19th through the 23rd of December.  And then they'll wind up the preseason at the Orange Holiday Classic Tournament 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 Corona Centennial, Santa Margarita and Orange High School, and many others. We'll try to get the lowdown on this one soon and post up the details.

On Monday, January 18,  Mater Dei will play Compton Dominguez in a classic matchup of two powerful programs at Pauley Pavilion in what would have been called the 5th Annual MLK Challenge, but which is now called the "Dream Classic."  This one, hosted by Dominguez, will feature Dominguez v. Mater Dei; Crenshaw v. Compton; Fairfax v. Simi; Long Beach Jordan v. Verbum Dei;  Manual Arts v. Long Beach Poly,  Inglewood v. Redondo; and Glendora v. Santa Clara. 

Mater Dei will also be playing Canyon High School at 3:00 p.m. in the Artesia-Poly Classic on January 30, 1999 at Los Angeles Southwest City College in a four game exhibition classic.  The first game will feature the Mater Dei v. Canyon game, followed at 4:30 p.m. by Pasadena vs. Verbum Dei, which is followed by Artesia vs. Compton at 6:00 p.m. and then Long Beach Poly vs. Dominguez at 7:30 p.m.

And as if this wasn't enough, they'll host their own truly spectacular event, the 4th Annual Nike Extravaganza at Cal State Fullerton, where Mater Dei will play one of NorCal's best teams this year, Bishop O'Dowd, a possible matchup of the state finalists in Division I.  The morning session begins at 10 a.m. and will feature:

10:00 a.m. --Tustin vs Upland High
11:30 a.m. --Santa Margarita vs Servite
1:00 p.m. ---Long Beach Poly vs Villa Park
2:30 p.m.---Crenshaw vs Oceanview

The evening session will feature:
4:30 p.m.-- Lakewood Artesia vs. Capistrano Valley
6:00 p.m.-- Glendora vs. Troy
7:30 p.m.-- Bishop O'Dowd vs. Mater Dei
9:00 p.m.--Compton Dominguez vs. Oak Hill Academy

You can't ask for many more exciting matchups than these, and you won't want to miss any of these games.

Just like you won't want to miss any of the season.  It is, after all, Mater Dei.


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