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High School Team Preview:
Crenshaw High School--(Nov. 5, 1998)

"If you check the rosters of most of the other teams in our area, you'll find that Crenshaw actually feeds most of them with our players. I'd be very happy if all the kids who live in the Crenshaw district actually went here and played for us."--Willie West, Head Varsity Coach, Crenshaw High

Willie West is probably the winningest coach in California. Period. We certainly don't mean any disrespect to other coaches who may have better win-loss records (Gary McKnight comes to mind), and actually, we don't have Willie's overall record at the tip of our fingers, so it just might be that he's got a better record than most others. But setting aside the numbers,  Willie's teams have won more big games, more consistently, and in the highest and toughest divisions more often than any other school in California history. Period.

Crenshaw opened up in February of 1968.   Willie became a coach there in September of that year. In the last 30 years, the Cougars have accumulated  28 championship banners in the gym, including seven Southern Regional Championships (83, 85, 86, 89, 93, 94, 96, and 97) and each time they won the Regionals and the City, they went to the State Finals. And won that too. Every time. In Division I. Oh, and the girls' team also won the Southern Regional title in 1997 (but lost in the State Final to Berkeley). Willie's teams have been the City Champions more times than we can count.

Willie West grew up in Houston, Texas, and played baseball at Yates High. He came out to California when he was only 17 1/2, with the intention of playing baseball here, "but it didn't work out."  When he played in Houston, the teams were segregated. "Our team was the state champion three years in a row in baseball, but we were the black championship team," he recalled.   "We never got a chance to play the all-white championship team."    He grew up close to the University of Houston, and would have liked to stay near his home, but back then, "I couldn't get into the University of Houston, because it was segregated. I could have gone to schools like Grambling, and other similar schools, but I decided to come out to California to check it out."  His parents still live in Houston, and he goes back there to visit them as often as he can. "Most of my family is still in Houston, except me and my son, who's already grown. I don't really miss Texas, but I do like to see my family when I can."

Eventually Coach West enrolled at Cal State L.A., where he earned a degree in Physical Education.  He was a student teacher at Pasadena Muir for two years. "I tried to catch on there, but it didn't work out."  He then taught at Los Angeles Muir Middle School for four years.   When Crenshaw opened, Willie became the baseball coach and the jv basketball coach for a few years. Now he just coaches varsity basketball and teaches 4 P.E. classes.

Crenshaw is a bit different than other schools when it comes to summer league play. "I used to run a summer league program at the school, and we'd play most of the local teams. But then in 1978, the big camps started popping up," Willie recalled.  "We'd be doing very well in league, having fun, and all of a sudden our best players would be gone to the big camps.  We couldn't keep them in the City during the summer," Willie said. " Decent players were becoming the 'best players in the world' in only one week, and with all of that stuff filling their heads, there was no way I could keep a summer program going.  So I decided rather than have the traveling team coaches (and they weren't called that back then) mad at me, or me mad at them, I'd just stop running the summer stuff."   And so for 20 years, Crenshaw has not run anything organized during the summer.

But this year that changed a bit. "We started seeing some of our best players on these traveling teams during the summer, and before you knew it, they'd be transferring out," Willie said.

"So my assistant coaches this summer decided that we'd try to keep the guys together for a little while, and we entered the Watts Summer Games," Willie told us.  "I told my assistants Maurice (Duckett) and Ellis Scott (both former Crenshaw players) that I'd be willing to provide transportation, but they could coach the team if they wanted to. And they did, and I think with the diversity we saw at the Games, it was a good thing.  And this year, we've got everyone back except the graduating seniors."

So unlike previous years, where virtual unknowns would pop up from the jv, this year, most of the players you'll see on the team will be returners, many of them starters.  Crenshaw did well last year with most of this group, but they came up one game short of the City Finals, running into Westchester. As Willie told us last year after the game at Cal State Dominguez Hills on February 27, 1998, which was won by the eventual City and State champion Westchester Comets, "You've got to play the best to be the best. We just played them a week early."   And Ed Azzam agreed at the time: "If we'd played this game next week, we could have packed the Sports Arena."

We asked Willie tonight what he thought had gone wrong with his team in the Westchester game, and he told us a few things which gave us some insight into the depth of attention that he gives his players during the year. "Well, several things were wrong, but not just for that game, but for most of the year. And it probably started with Anthony Garrison," Willie told us. 

"Anthony had just come back from a summer football practice after being interviewed on TV and some newspapers, and he was really excited. H ran all the way home to tell his dad about it," Willie recalled. "But when he got home, he found his father dead. He actually was the one who found him, and he was never the same again," Willie said.  "Anthony and his father were extremely close; his father was always there for him, a big supporter, giving Anthony direction, at every game he played."

"When we opened the season last year at the Pooh Richardson Classic in Philly," Willie continued, "Anthony was standing in the corner, crying his eyes out. He told me 'Coach, I always used to hear my father whenever I played. If I messed up, he'd yell at me. If I did something good, he'd yell at me. But now I don't hear him.'"

"Anthony was never the same after that, and it affected him throughout the season," Willie said. "We had some other things go wrong last year, most of it minor in comparison, but it just wasn't meant to be our year," Coach West concluded. "Maybe this year we'll do it again. Who knows.   There are a lot of tough teams out there, especially in City Section.  We're pretty good, but Fairfax will be good, and so will Manual, and Westchester has really established itself. And I have no idea what the Valley teams look like."

Coach West was not surprised to see the playoff situation in City reverting back to a familiar formula, and he thinks there will be more changes next year. This year, there will be no 4-A or 3-A playoffs, just the top 16 teams in the City playing for the City Title, and the next 16 playing for a "Divisional" title. "Actually, I  liked it best when it was just the top two teams from each league which made it to the City Playoffs," coach West said. "Just take the best, and let them play the best."

So is Crenshaw "the best" this year?   Who knows, but we do know that most of the team will be back, and that there is really only one new face on the squad, at least according to Coach West.  But until the season actually gets underway, there may be changes and/or additions. Players could move up, and some players, if they don't keep up their intensity, won't be seeing much time. At Crenshaw, nothing is a given.

Here's' the roster as far as Coach West knows for now:

Ryan Sims (6'-8" Sr. F/C)
Shaun Hemsley (6'-9" Sr. C)
Armand Thomas (6'-8" Sr. PF)
Omo Selewa Daramola (6'-5" Sr. SF/PF)
Dewayne Parker (6'-3" Sr. SG)
E.J. Harris (6'-2" Jr. PG)
John Moseley (6'-4" Sr. PF)
Tommie Johnson (6'-4" Jr. SF/SG)
Jonathon Stokes (6'-1" Sr. SG)
Garry Looney (5'-10" Jr. PG)
David Merriweather (5'-10" Jr. PG)
Chris Davis (6'-6" Jr. PF)
Dialo Washington (6'-4" Jr. SG)


Some of these guys are "on the bubble" and Willie isn't quite sure yet, but time will tell. We haven't listed freshman sensation Jamal Walls (6'-7" Fr. F) because his eligibility is presently in question. He's enrolled, but not yet eligible to play. "He may be with us by the mid-season, but he's going to have to deal with a little reality-check," coach West told us. "He's talented, and we hope he can play."

This is a team with a huge frontline, 6'-9", 6'-8" , 6'-8", about as tall and physical as anywhere in California, perhaps only matched by Artesia with Jason Kapono at 6'-8",  Apolinar Fernandez at 6'-9" and Jack Martinez at 6'-7".  And it will get even more formidable at Crenshaw if Walls becomes eligible, as he's a very talented freshman, with a big, wide body. Are the guys at Crenshaw as physically intimidating and as talented as the guys at Artesia? Certainly none of them has developed national reputations like the Lakewood guys, but they are still formidable and may get their reputation this year.

Thomas is an excellent player, and a really good athlete with tremendous strength, who runs the floor well and plays very actively. He's got tremendous potential, and has visits planned or taken to Washington State, Rutgers and Pepperdine. Ryan Sims is another excellent athlete, who could use a few pounds, but who runs the floor very well. He's got a good shooting touch, is a good rebounder, and also handles the ball well. Shaun is a big, strong kid, with soft hands, good scoring moves around basket, and good footwork, and he is a reasonably good shot blocker. Given that Crenshaw has a bit more concentrated size this year, Willie says he may use it to his advantage and try some different things: "We've always been a running, pressing team. This year we may try a few different things, like making teams try to shoot over us from the outside."  And if they do, they'll run into the wall that is this frontline. John Moseley will also provide some bulk as will Daramola, and the latter has been one of the better four men to emerge this summer at those "camps" that Willie decided not to fight with so long ago. Chris Davis is playing his first year of high school ball, and so no one really knows what to expect. He didn't play as a 9th grader, and last year wasn't eligible. Willie says of him, "He sort of needs a spark to get him going, but he's got talent and some ability."   In other words, at any other school, he'd be an instant starter.

Of course, other teams facing Crenshaw will also run into an excellent backcourt, featuring one of the best point guards around, E.J. "The Golden One" Harris. Frankly, we don't know how he got the nickname (kinda like "Sweet Lou Wright") and frankly, it doesn't matter. E.J. can handle the ball with the best, and he pushes the break, dishes, drives, and can score from either inside or from the mid-range with a nice pull up j out to about 15'.  E.J. is one of those players who doesn't have tremendous speed, but who has a wonderful instinct for the game, always knows where the open man is or the open hole to the basket. He's not the quickest defender, and it will be interesting to see who will guard Tito Maddox when Crenshaw matches up with Compton at the MLK "Dream Classic" on Monday, January 18th at Pauley Pavilion. "We have three practice games each year. That's one of them," Willie told us. "Some practice game," he said sarcastically. Backing up E.J. or at least vying for time will be David Merriweather, and Garry Looney (who is Gilbert Arenas' cousin).

At the two and swing spots, Dewayne Parker, Tommie Johnson, a transfer from Fairfax, and Jonathon Stokes will all provide great shooting range and accuracy from the perimeter. Dialo may also show up if he decides he wants to, but the decision is pretty much up to him how hard he's willing to play. If he does, he can be really good. Dewayne was being pursued pretty heavily by UCSB until they took B.J. Ward and Nick Jones, and we're not sure who's looking at him right now. He's a strong, athletic player with a great "nose for the ball" who can score with a good shooting touch out to three point range. Tommie Johnson has begun to develop into one of the better shooters in the junior class, and he really stepped up last season when Joe Shipp was injured, and hopefully he'll do the same thing for the Cougars. Stokes is really more of a spot-up shooter than a penetrator, and this year could be the chance for him to really perform well, especially if Crenshaw runs more half-court set offense than they traditionally have. He needs to step up on the defensive end, but offensively, he was a solid contributor last season off the bench, and has the potential to work into the starting rotation.

Crenshaw plays probably the most difficult schedule around. It starts with the preseason. Crenshaw opens directly at the Ocean View Tournament of Champions,  December 7-12.

On Wednesday, December 16, Crenshaw will play Crossroads at Crenshaw.  Two days later, on the 18th, the team leaves for Portland, where they'll appear in the Oregon Holiday Invitational, a large tournament which will feature only one other team from outside of Oregon besides Crenshaw, and we'd expect to see teams there like Benson Tech, Jesuit, Beaverton, but we really shouldn't speculate, because we just don't know. We'll try to find out, and we're pretty sure that someone over at WCH can get the lowdown on this one.

From Oregon, the team returns to LA on December 24, and immediately after the Christmas break, Crenshaw will travel to San Diego for the Nike Holiday Prep Championship. We just did a feature about that one, so we won't bother repeating it. But here's the link in case you want to check it out.

Crenshaw will also appear at two other non-league big-time events during the regular season. As we mentioned, they'll be at the MLK "Dream Classic" on January 18, 1999 at Pauley Pavilion, and then they'll appear at the Nike Extravaganza at Cal State Fullerton, where they'll be matched up against Ocean View.

Manual Arts looks good; Fremont looks promising; Westchester is back; Fairfax is still strong, and Sylmar and Venice are coming on, and who knows about schools like LA High, Washington, or some of the others. Only time will tell.  But we're willing to bet that Willie will have this group back in shape for another run at a City title, a Southern Regional and maybe even a 9th State Championship.  And as always, we'll be watching.


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