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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview:
Bellarmine-Jefferson HS--(Nov. 22, 1999)

"Last year we were a player away from being really, really good. Well, you've heard about the good-news-bad-news saying haven't you?  The good news is, everyone from last year is back; the bad news is everyone from last year is back."  Eli Essa, head coach, Bell-Jeff HS

Eli Essa is the head coach of Bell-Jeff, a 4 year, coeducational high school located in the foothills of Burbank located near the Burbank Media Center, with a student enrollment of a little more than 360, which places them in Division V-AA. The school competes in the Santa Fe League against Cathedral, La Salle, Daniel Murphy, Salesian, and St. Genevieve.  Essa has been coaching for the past 23 years. He got his start at age of 24, coaching youth teams at the club level with the East Valley Trojans, a youth club team from the San Fernando Valley in the Valley Conference. "I coached the 13-14 year old teams there for quite a while, and then in 1984-85 I got my first job coaching at the high school level as an assistant for Steve Miller who was then the head coach at North Hollywood High," Essa recalled. "I coached there for 9 years, and in those years, we won a City Section title, and I got the opportunity to coach some great players, including Dana Jones (Pepperdine) who was the City Player of the Year (and Damon Ollie's brother). We had guys like Arthur Lee (Stanford), and even players you probably don't remember, like Fantasia Johnson, who played in the same backcourt with Arthur, and who was the quickest player I've ever seen, anywhere," Essa said. "We had some great teams, and I think that by the time I left there, coach Miller and I were sort of a coaching duo, really splitting the duties and handling everything in tandem. He'd handle the offense, while I'd handle the defense, and sometimes it was vice-versa.  But I really credit coach Miller with teaching me just about everything that I learned about coaching. By the time I came to Bell-Jeff, I was really ready to take on the job as a head coach, and I attribute that to Steve Miller, a great coach and friend."

Bell-Jeff last year was 9-16, and failed to make the playoffs, finishing fifth in league play. But to hear Essa tell it, you can't really judge a team simply by their won-loss record. "Twelve of our losses were by single digits, and 9 of them were by less than 5 points, including four overtime losses.   If we win one or two more games in league last year, we might have made it to the playoffs.  We were just one player away from being good.  I was disappointed last year, but we beat a lot of playoff teams last year, and I think we're even better now."  Bell-Jeff won the league title three times in the last four years, all the years that Ruben Douglas played for the school. But last year they were second to last in the league. "No one likes to lose, but sometimes it's easy to win, and you have to learn how to lose. I think we learned a lot last year about to really be   competitors," Essa said.  

Being "one player away," last season was, we thought, a clear reference to missing a player of the caliber of Ruben Douglas, Bell-Jeff's most famous recent alum, who was busy playing for Arizona last year as a freshman, starting in the last 11 games of the season. Ruben recently made a decision to leave, and will transfer out of Arizona after this semester. He will have a full three years of eligibility because he refused to play this year in the first exhibition games, thus preserving his full eligibility. Essa remains very close to Douglas, speaking with him often. So we thought this might be a perfect opportunity to get some insights into the whats and whys of Ruben's decision to leave the Wildcats. "I know a lot about what happened," Essa told us, "but I really can't talk about it right now, at least not until Ruben gets himself situated with a new school.  I think it would be unfair to Ruben, and it would be unfair to the coaches at Arizona as well.  When the dust settles, I'm sure that Ruben will tell his story.  But for now, I'd rather not say," Essa told us.

So what is this year's Bell-Jeff team going to look like?  "We'll be fast, and I think we've got excellent size for our division.  This is actually the tallest team, overall,  that I've coached at Bell-Jeff.  We have four guys over 6'-4" and it's almost comparable to some of the City teams at North Hollywood that I coached. Our overall quickness is good, not electrifying, but certainly we are quick," Essa told us. "The best thing about this team is that each of these guys is looking for the others on the floor, not just looking out for himself. There's a real chemistry with this group. Sure we'll probably take some lumps early on, like when we play teams like Notre Dame, or Santa Maria St. Joseph's, which I hear is loaded again this year.  But I think we're going to be one of the best in our division this year." 

Here's the Bell-Jeff roster for 1999-2000:

Carlos Arroyo 6'-6" Sr. C/F
Casey Markovic 6'-5" Jr. SG
Andy Bunning 6'-4" Jr. F
Mike Yildiz 6'-1" Sr. SG
Christian Gopez 6'-0" Jr. SG/PG
Romel Cabrerra 5'-8" So. PG
Tyler Kealey 5'-11" So. PG
Ryan Shinnaman 6'-5" So. F
Chris Chavez 6'-3" So. F
Jason Sanchez 5'-10" Sr. SG
Saul Que. 5'-7" Sr. PG
Tony Essa 6'-0" So. SG/SF
Matt Nataranni 6'-3" So. F
Mike Argento 6'-0" So. G

This team has a really strong nucleus of starters and potential starters, and the top seven or so, at least this early in the year, looks likely to be Carlos Arroyo, Casey Markovic, Andy Bunning, Mike Yildiz, Christian Gopez, Romel Cabrerra and Tyler Kealey, but we'd also expect to see Ryan Shinnaman, Chris Chavez and Jason Sanchez getting significant playing time as well.

Carlos Arroyo will definitely be among the starters on this team.  Essa describes him as a "hidden treasure."  Of Arroyo he says, "He didn't play last year due to some transfer restrictions, but he did play JV after playing varsity at his old school that he transferred from.  He's a very capable player, very strong and he could be one of the top post players in the Valley region this year."  We've seen Carlos play a lot this past summer, and other than simply hitting a wall during the middle part of July when he was playing with BWBA, he had a reasonably successful year.  Carlos has a nice shot out to about 15', and he runs the floor well, and can be extremely aggressive down low in the blocks, especially against bigger and stronger players. He's a good rebounder, a really tough player who will be active on the boards. He's got the potential to be a player at the next level, but the only question is at what level.  He could definitely play at the D-III or D-II level, but whether he'll be able to attract D-I schools will in large part depend upon how productive he is this season.

Carlos will be joined by Casey Markovic who will be playing out on the wing and at the two.  Markovic has the potential to be a prolific scorer, and he's capable of hitting shots in bunches, like he did for the Midnight Madness Bell-Jeff held a week ago, where the team played in a scrimmage against the 1992 alumni team. Casey hit 8 for 8 on three pointers in that game, and it's something he may be capable of doing during the regular season. Right now as a junior, he's getting attention from New Mexico, Oregon State, Oregon, Santa Clara, USF, Texas, Arizona State, South Florida and several others. "He could be one of the best pure shooters in the region. He's got lots of upside, but is a bit thin right now and will need to work on getting stronger. He also needs to do a lot of work to take his game to the college level," Essa said. "He can run the floor, and has a good handle.  He's really about a 50% three point shooter, and can run off the break too.  The best thing about him is that we have two more years to go, so he's going to only get better."

Andy Bunning, a forward who can also play the post, is a returning starter, very active at the post,  and a strong dender. "I like to think of him as Dennis Rodman with a great attitude," Essa told us.   "He's an excellent student, and also a student of the game.  He's very aggressive, and he's the kind of guy though who will knock you down, but then'll pick you up.  Just a great kid."   Essa also describes Bunning as having pretty decent shooting range too, including being able to hit out to three.  He's a sort of wiry player, who will need to bulk up, but he's a good athlete, can run the floor and also defend.  "He's not really well known because he didn't play on the summer circuit but just stayed with the team in summer league stuff," Essa said. "I think he's about a year away now from getting some really strong attention from the colleges, and about a year away from being truly dominant."

At the two, Mike Yildiz is a player whom Essa describes as having "had his ups and downs."  Essa believes that Mike is the kind of player who can either insure Bell-Jeff's success or he can be "the X-Factor."   "He can either totally take over a game or try to do too much as he did last year. I tell all my players that I have a 'no dunk rule' when the score is closer than 15 points or less. But last year, in some of the games we lost, Mike would have wide open layups but instead he'd try to dunk. He did it in a game last year, and missed the dunk," Essa recalled.  "So I had to bench him, and becasue I bench players for at least a quarter when I have to take that step, we were without him, and I think he finally realized how detrimental that was for us."   Does Essa think he's gotten that worked out with Mike now?  "Yes, I think he understands that basketball is a team sport and he has to play within a system.  It took us a full year for him to learn our system, which is a lot different than the kind of play he'd been used to at a City Section school. He's had a good summer, and is showing he's capable of running the defense and the offense just like we want him to;  but there's no question that Mike is our X-Factor, and if he does it our way, it could be the difference," Essa said.  "We'll definitely need him. He's the most powerful rebounder of any player I've seen for his size, and he rebounds like he's 6'-5 or 6'-6"--a very powerful leaper and can run well in the open floor.  If he's hot, we'll win, if he's cold it could really hurt." Essa said. 

Christian Gopez, last year's MVP, can also play a lot of high post, and he may be the best pure defender on the team.  Christian led the team in assists and steals last year, and he's also got a nice mid range jumper. He's one of the co-captains this year. "Christian brings something intangible that not a lot of other guys do, and that's his 'never give up' attitude," Essa told us. "He's an extension of the coaching staff on floor,  and he's got a great basketball IQ. He's the guy that every coach wants to have out on the floor, because he just has such a great understanding of what you want him to do."   Essa says that Gopez is being looked at by several D-III schools, and will definitely get some other offers by the spring. "He's got great character, and he's an excellent student."

Romel Cabrerra is the returning starter at the point. Romel was "forced" (Essa's word, not ours) into playing varsity and starting last year, which gave him valuable experience, but Essa candidly admits that he might have had a better experience if he'd played jv last year.  "But we were so depleted, that we couldn't do without him after Ruben graduated, and there were times last year we started two frosh, two sophs and a junior, just to give you an idea of how young we were."   But Romel is a very capable point, with a good handle, and he's also a terrific defender, with good quickness and lateral movement. And there are not a lot of guys who will be able to say that they were four year varsity starters.   " He's got good hands, but he'll have to learn to make some better decisions about when to penetrate and when to pull up. He sometimes tends to over-dribble and get stuck in among the tall trees, but he's learning when to pick his spots.  Romel is also a very good rebounder for his size, and on the break, he's the guy we want with the ball in his hands," Essa said.  "He's got great form, and if he improves his outside jumper, he'll be a terror for next three years."

Tyler Kealey  will also fight Romel for a starting spot at the point, but will also see time at the two. "He could be as good an outside shooter as Markovic," Essa says.  Tyler was pulled up last year from the frosh team, where he was a leader. He played varsity in the spring and summer leagues, and he's one of the best ballhandlers on the team. "He's got good court vision and sees the floor the best of anyone; I think he needs to tone down the Allen Iverson stuff, but with his great passing and shooting skills, he doesn't need to do that kind of stuff.   He will definitely push Romel for a starting spot, and the two of them will form a great backcourt for the next three years." 

Ryan Shinnaman is a newcomer not only to Bell Jeff, but also to California. He moved here from the State of Washington in the middle of September. "He's the stepson of Paul Johnson, the weather and traffic guy on Channel 4,  and he now lives in Burbank with the family," said Essa.   "From a basketball point of view, he's very raw, but really strong around basket. I don't have any idea what kind of coaching he had, but he just is starting to learn the game.  I remember one time when I told him I wanted him to do a drop-step turnaround, and he looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. He'd never heard of a drop-step and didn't know what I was talking about," Essa said. "But he's learning and as long as he's inside and around the basket, we'll be fine with him. He's a very good shotblocker and rebounder, who will give Carlos and Bunning some time off the floor. Again, the best thing about him is that he's only a sophomore and we've got another three years with him," Essa said.  

Chris Chavez, another of the sophomores on this team, was MVP of the jv as a freshman. "He is a terror on the boards, and has great leaping ability," Essa said. "He needs to learn the ins and outs of the game, but he's got sheer raw hustle around the basket, and he's not afraid to put his shoulder into a guy and move someone out of the paint," Essa said.  "He's also a pretty good scorer, who can step out to the short corner and knock down a 10' or 15' shoot. He's a decent defender who is getting better all the time."

Jason Sanchez, one of the seniors on the team, brings good ballhandling and excellent outside shooting, a good midrange to three point range,  and he's also an excellent spot up shooter.  Sanchez is probably a good 6th man on this team, but could challenge for a starting spot, excellent on the defensive end of the floor, a decent ballhandleer, who really is effective on the ball applying pressure defense.  He was the leading scorer on the jv team last year (he had to play jv because he came in after June, and CIF rules provide that players must announce a transfer before May 15 or they must sit out a year)  "I would expect Jason to play about 10-20 minutes a game this year.  He played a lot this summer and gained valuable experience in beating some of the great teams we beat this summer," said Essa. "He also brings senior leadership, which is something we'll need."

Saul Que, will function principally as a backup point guard. "He's a good ball handler, one of our team leaders, and another co-captain this year, along with Casey and Christian Gopez. He's also a very aggressive on-ball defender, one of those guys that we'll put on the floor when we want to create some defensive havoc."

Of the remaining three players, Tony Essa, Matt Nataranni, and Mike Argento, Coach Essa was not certain whether they would play varsity all year or also spend time with the jv's.  "I think they're all good enough, but the real question is whether they'll get better development by playing a lot of minutes or sitting behind the starters.  They'll be with the varsity throughout the preseason and the tournaments, that much is clear."   Tony Essa is a very aggressvie, smart player, which is not surprising because he's the coach's son. "He's an excellent defender, the kind of kid who will dive into the parking lot to save a ball from going out of bounds," Essa told us. "Natarranni is a great inside player, very strong in the post, and he was part of our championship freshman team from last year, so he knows how to win.  Mike Argento is a terrific shooter from the perimeter and he's also a good point guard, with a great handle, but his real strength is as a shooter at the win.  All three of these guys need to continue to improve, and we'll be watching closely to determine where they'll get the best development opportunities," Essa said.

Bell-Jeff opens up this coming Tuesday (November 22, 1999) at Harvard-Westlake for a scrimmage which the two schools have been playing annually for some time now.  Bell-Jeff was also scheduled to play in the Orangewood tournament in early December, but that was cancelled when a couple of teams pulled out. "It's too bad because now we have to scramble to find a tournament.   We're trying to get into the Milken Hilltop Tournament (from December 6-8), but we'll still be ok if we just play Orangewood in a single game," Essa said.   Here's the Bell-Jeff schedule for the 1999-2000 year:

Dec 4 Notre Dame
Dec 11 Flintridge Prep
Dec. 15-21 Bell Jeff Tournament
Dec. 27-30 Eagle Rock Tournament
Jan 7 *Cathedral
Jan 8 St. Joseph Santa Maria
Jan 12 *Salesian
Jan 14 @*Murphy
Jan 19 @*St. Genevieve
Jan 22 @*La Salle
Jan 24 Village Christian
Jan 26 @*Cathedral
Jan 28 @*Salesian
Feb 2 *Murphy
Feb 4 *St. Genevieve
Feb 9 * La Salle

Asked about the other teams in his league, Essa said, "Well, La Salle has got a great team, and they won the league last year, so until someone beats them, they're the favorites. A lot of the other teams in our league can be good too, like Cathedral and Murphy, but we'll just have to wait and see." In the division (CIF Southern Section D-VAA)  Essa thinks there are some who are clearly favorites this season: "I haven't seen all the teams in Division V-AA, but there are some I think will be  really good this year and who could be tough in the playoffs.   Calvary Chapel Downey was excellent last year and they should be good this year too. From the Valley area, Campbell Hall will be strong, and so will Montclair Prep and Pacific Hills. I think Buckley will be a strong team, and Milken has been good the past couple of years too.  I don't know though. It's a very large division, and just about anyone can come out of anywhere," Essa said.

Eli Essa also wanted to take the time during our discussion to remind us about the teams coming to the Bell-Jeff Tournament this year.   "We'll have some really good competition, including Burbank, Hart, Canyon (all from the Foothill League), Culver City, Eagle Rock, Kennedy, Van Nuys, Grant, Half Moon Bay from the San Francisco area, and McNair HS from Vancouver, BC, Canada. "It will be a really fun tournament, so if you're in the area, check it out."

We'll be in the area and may indeed come out to watch. Just as we'll be watching throughout the season.  See you there.

 The Swish Award
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