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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview:
Ayala HS (Chino Hills)--(Nov. 18, 1999)

"I'm a John Wooden disciple: Discipline, up-tempo, fundamental basketball."--Tom Gregory, head coach, Ayala HS

We've gotten so used to using the quote above from Tom Gregory (we used it in our last two previews of Ayala) that we figured, why mess with a good thing? And the truth is, once a Wooden disciple, always a Wooden disciple.   There may not be a John Wooden High School Invitational Classic this year (the reasons are somewhat murky, but we've been told by the folks in charge of the college Wooden Classic, that because the event is scheduled for Nov. 27 this year for USC v.Duke and Auburn vs.Stanford, it was too early to also include a high school game, which is correct because the CIF doesn't allow the first game for high schools until the 29th of November), but if there was such a high school game again this season, there's no doubt Ayala would be playing in it. . . but we digress.

If you've seen Ayala play over the last several years, then you know that coach Gregory actually practices what he preaches of the Wooden philosophy: Hard work, discipline, up-tempo play, and basic, fundamental skills. Ayala continues to get far with that approach, making the quarterfinals of the Southern Section D-IAA playoffs for the past several years.  "We've always been knocking on the door, and while I'd like to get beyond there and into the finals, a spot we've never been in, this year, I'd be happy to return to the quarterfinals and see what happens.  We're not going to be as big or as deeply talented on the bench as we have been the past two years, but we're still among the top 10 teams in our division I think," Gregory told us.

Two years about they managed to get as far as the quarterfinals where they lost to Capistrano Valley, 61-55, but not before Chasen Jones, then a sophomore, hit for 8 three-pointers. Last season Ayala knocked off Valencia (Valencia) in the first round 81-56, and then beat Upland 71-65 in the second round. In the quarterfinals though, Ayala matched up against Long Beach Jordan, and guys like Craig Calloway, Travon Bryant and Darren Peterson, were just too much for the Bulldogs.  It was a good run through the season, and Ayala finished at 20-9. As for how they'll fare this season, well, we'll get to that shortly.  

For those unfamiliar with the school, Ruben S. Ayala High School is located in Chino Hills with an enrollment of 3,700.  The school competes in the Sierra League with Damien, Diamond Bar, Nogales, Rowland and West Covina. Gregory has been the head coach since 1990 when he started the program at the then-new school with a team of all freshman and sophomores. For the last 10 years he's had some very successful teams.  His UCLA connection dates back to the time about 20 years ago when Gregory served as the director of the John Wooden Basketball Camps held every summer at UCLA. His affiliation with and affection for Coach Wooden is another reason why Ayala was invited the last two years in a row to play at the John R. Wooden Invitational High School Classic played at the Pond.  Again, they won't be going there this year, and likewise, unlike last year, they won't be playing Glendora either. "I tried to get them on our schedule, but Glendora didn't have the games this year.  Maybe next season we can get them back again, because I'd love to play Mike LeDuc's teams again. They are always so well coached, and our kids just love the experience."

University of Nebraska fans may also recognize Gregory's name. Tom was a 3 year starting point guard for the University of Nebraska, and in addition to that he's also been the director of Jerry West's basketball camps for several summers.  Before Jim Harrick left town,  Gregory also served as the director of his camps too. Before coming to Ayala, Gregory was the head coach at Savanna, and as a high school student himself, he played at Troy in Orange County was here was the starting point guard. His philosophy remains the same as it's been since he was a player: "Just take care of the ball and play a disciplined game." 

Since last year, a number of very talented guys have graduated, including Jack May, who is now at Dusquesne, Jean Rene Stephens, Chad Fune,   Marcus Wilson, Damien Wigfall, and Daniel Sherman.  Both May and Sherman were the teams' frontline, and without them, Gregory will be the first to admit that the Bulldogs this year have a major weakness, and that's their lack of height. "We are probably not as strong up front, and if we have any weakness at all, I'd say it's that bigger teams will give us some trouble. But our biggest strength is that these guys have been playing together for a long time, and they are very coachable.  We are a very good team, which really is better than the sum of it's parts," Gregory told us.

Here's the roster for 1999-2000

Marcel Burke 6'-5" Sr. PG/SF
Chris Pacana 6'-0" Sr. PG/SG
Dante Donald 5'-9" Jr. PG/SG
Ekele Agwuenu 6'-3" Sr. SF
Mark McCoy 6'-1" Sr. G
Willey Cradoc 6'-3" Sr. SG/SF
Malik Jones 6'-05" Jr. F
Mike Sterling 6'-3" Sr. SF/SG
DJ Lucas 6'-5" Sr. F
Chasen Jones 5'-11" Sr. PG/SG
Ken Quinn 6'-2" Jr. SG/SF
Nick Vavakin 6'-7" Sr. SF/PF
Bobby Sims 6'-2" Sr. SG

Gregory is the first to admit that he's going to be trying some completely different things this year, including playing guys way outside of where we would expect to find them. In fact, when we were interviewing Tom this morning, we started off by running down the roster of the team we had, listing off the heights of players, positions, etc., and when we got to Marcel Burke, we said "forward," to which Tom said, "point guard."  "Point guard?" we replied. "Yes," he said. "We're going to try some really different rotations this year. Marcel is a great slasher, has an excellent handle and he'll be playing mostly at the point this year. He's got a good outside shot and is an offensive force who can also defend, and he's a guy a lot of colleges will be looking at by the end of the season," Gregory told us.  "He may not qualify and will definitely need to work on his grades, so he might attend a prep school. I think he'd play well at a JC, but from what I've seen lately, guys go to JC's and some get lost there. A prep school might give him the discipline and skills he'll need to make it in college."

So if Marcel is going to handle the point, where's Chris Pacana going to play?  "We'll use Chris a little at the one, but based on what he did this summer against some of the better and bigger teams we played, he's also going to play more inside at the forward spot. He's really gotten a lot stronger, and he's one of the more crafty players we've got. He can go low against bigger guys and be really successful. So that's where he'll be mostly this season, at least based on what I've seen so far."

We were getting the idea that this was going to be a real guard oriented offense, and Tom confirmed that.  "I'll also likely start Marc McCoy with Chris and Marcel, and he's probably the best pure outside shooter on the team this year. He's put on about 20 lbs of muscle, and he's gotten very strong, but he'll definitely play at the off-guard position," Gregory told us.

Backup these three will likely be Dante Donald, Willey Cradoc, and Chasen Jones. Of Chasen, Gregory told us that he's been playing football, and so he's missed the first week of practice, and given how well the Ayala team is doing, he may not be back until Christmas. But when he does return, he may also see some time at the point. "He started out great for us, but then got a little inconsistent last year with turnovers to assist ratios, and how he performs this year will be determined in large part by when he comes back from football. He had a great summer for us, and we're hoping for big things," Gregory said. Dante Donald is likely to be playing a backup role at the point this year, but he'll be the heir apparent since most of the guards will be graduating. "We're expecting big things out of Dante. He's extremely quick, but needs to work on his handle and passing choices. Hopefully this year will give him the experience he needs to become a starter next year." Willey Cradoc will likely backup at the two spot, and he's an excellent spot up shooter, very fundamentally sound, and with his size he can also play the small forward. Finally, also at the two guard spot will be Bobby Sims, a transfer in from Marshall Fundamental in Pasadena. "He's a very good athlete, but it will take him some time to learn our system, which can be a little complicated at times. He's very strong, and an excellent shooter, but it will take time before he can really work his way into the rotation with any regularity," said Gregory.

At the small/wing forward spot, look for several players, including D.J. Lucas, Mike Sterling and Ken Quinn.  Lucas is probably the most improved player on the team so far this year, and Gregory says "He's gone from being very much a reserve to one of the focal points of the offense.  He's got a very effective shot out to 17', and he's improved athletically and in his conditioning overall and he'll be very important to us this year. He's being recruited by Concordia and a host of other small colleges, right now, but with a big season, that could open up a bit.   Mike Sterling will also see some time at the forward spot. "He's played a great role for us, as the high post distributor, and a great defensive stopper. Mike had a very effective summer and greatly improved and he will be another key to our offense, and especially our defensive effectiveness. Ken Quinn will mostly likely this season see time relieving Sterling. He's a solid defender and rebounder who needs to improve his offense, especially his outside shot, but he will see some time in game situations and he'll only get better this season, according to Gregory.  Two others will also be listed as small forwards on the roster, but how much time they see will depend on several factors. Elele Agwuenu is possibly one of the best athletes on the team, but he's also a football player, and if he's going to step in and play a big role, he'll have to really want to spend the time necessary to become an achiever and reach his full potential. "Really, he and I have already had that talk, about how he'll have to make a commitment to becoming a better player. If he does, he's got great potential, but it's up to him," Gregory said.  Malik Jones is another player who has tremendous potential, and Ayala will expect big things for him this season, which will really be the grooming for next year, when he'll likely step into a starting role.

At the post this year, the lone guy will be Nick Vavakin, who at 6'-7" is not only the biggest guy on the team, but also the hardest working player as well. He's up to about 210 lbs, and has been solidly working on his strength and fundamentals throughout the summer and fall. "He's a great competitor, and one of the hardest working kids we've got," said Gregory. Tom also says that Vavakin is attracting the attention of several D-II and D-III schools, with Humboldt State showing the most interest right now.

Ayala will start off the season at the 3rd Annual Reebok Compton Tip-Off Classic, in a matchup against La Jolla Bishops' with Nick Booker and several other really excellent players (we'll have a preview of them up shortly). They'll then take off for Fresno for the BCW Battle of the Central Valley from December 1-4, where they'll be the 8th seeded team in the tournament, in a pool with Oak Ridge from Sacramento, LA Cleveland, and Buchannan. The tournament will feature teams from all over, including Artesia, Clovis West, Oakland Fremont, LA Fremont, Washington Union, Long Beach Poly, and on and on.

Upon their return from Fresno, Ayala will host it's own tournament from December 20-23, which will feature Chino, Walnut, Bell Gardens, Jurupa Valley, Montclair, Pacific SB, Alta Loma, Montebello, Pomona, Temple City, and Chaffey. Then from the 27-30 of December, they'll be at the Best in the West where they'll meet up with last year's finalists and runner up, Verbum Dei in what should be an impressive and fun matchup.

As far as league play goes, Gregory is optimistic, but then he's the first to admit he doesn't know very much this year about the competition. "Nogales should be good, as will Damien, but Rowland lost it's coach so I have no idea what they'll be like. Diamond Bar could be a mystery and West Covina I really have no idea about.  But we should do alright if we work hard and play disciplined ball."

Asked to pick his Top 10 in the Southern Section of CIF this year, Gregory rattled off a bunch of names: Artesia, Dominguez, Mater Dei, Poly, Jordan, Fontana, Pacific, Glendora. But then he paused and said, "We could be there too given how well we played against some of the stronger teams this past summer. I don't know, but we might be in there too."

In the middle of the regular season this year, Ayala will make an appearance at a new MLK event, one held out at UC Riverside on Saturday, January 15 which will feature mostly teams from the Inland Empire area, and Ayala will play Eisenhower at 6:00 p.m. The following Monday, Jan. 17, 2000 (MLK, Jr. Day)  they'll appear in the Nike Dream Classic at the Long Beach Pyramid. 

Whether Ayala is talented or strong enough to get past some of the deeper or taller teams in D-IAA is anyone's guess right now, but in high school ball, where quickness and speed often counts for more than height and size, Ayala has plenty of that.  Whether it will be enough though, only time will tell.

We'll be watching.

1999-2000 Ayala Bulldog Schedule:

Nov. 29 Reebok Compton Tip Off Classic @ Compton CC
Dec. 1-4 BCW Battle of Central Valley @ Clovis West, Fresno
Dec. 20-23 Ayala Tournament
Dec. 27-30 Best in the West Invitational @ Long Beach State
Jan 4 Don Lugo
Jan 7 *Nogales
Jan 12 *Diamond Bar
Jan 14 @*Damien
Jan 15 @Eisenhower (MLK Event, UC Riverside)
Jan 17 Nike Dream Classic @ Long Beach Pyramid
Jan 19 *Rowland
Jan 21 @*West Covina
Jan 28 @*Nogales
Feb 2 @*Diamond Bar
Feb. 4 *Damien
Feb. 9 @*Rowland
Feb. 11 *West Covina

 The Swish Award
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