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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview: 
Mater Dei (Santa Ana)--(Nov. 10, 1999)

"We are a very, very talented team this year.  But next year's team could be the best ever to come out of Mater Dei." --Gary McKnight, head coach, Mater Dei

Mater Dei a Catholic high school located in Santa Ana. It's a four year, co-educational school with an enrollment of 2,088 students, which places it in Division I-A of CIF Southern Section.  It's been said many times since they lost in the State Finals to Oakland Fremont last March that  this year's Mater Dei team is going to be far better than last year's, that it will be one of the top programs this year, not only in Southern California, not only on the West Coast, but perhaps one of the truly elite programs in the nation this year.  While these statements might seem like exaggerations, a bit of puffing, they aren't.  The USA Today high school polls are still a couple of weeks away, but we feel no hesitancy at all in writing that Mater Dei will in fact be one of the top teams in SoCal and could return again to the State Championship game in March.  

Two years ago, Mater Dei, was a team in a "rebuilding year"; at least that was the way Gary McKnight described it then.  The Monarchs had last won a CIF State Championship in 1995 when they defeated Oakland Fremont 71-67, but in 1996-97, the team finished 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 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.

But even in a rebuilding year, in 1997-98, Mater Dei still managed to make it to the Southern Section semifinals before losing to San Bernardino Pacific by a single point, 70-69 on a last second shot at the buzzer by Demond Huff.   And just a year after being one of the most "beatable" teams in Mater Dei history, in 1998-99 the Monarchs once again found themselves back in the State Championship game in Division I against Oakland Fremont. But unlike that 1995 win over Fremont, Mater Dei found itself on the wrong end of the gun, and they lost 50-45.   Ask Gary McKnight about that game today, and he'll tell you, "We were terrible.  Awful. The players know how I feel about that game, and it's not an exaggeration to say that we beat teams who were much better than that during the rest of the season and during playoffs.  You can say that it was a lot of things, like if Jamal doesn't get hurt, maybe we win, if this or that shot drops, but the bottom line is that we lost that game.  You've got to give Fremont credit too, because they played their style of game and had some good athletes.  But that doesn't change the fact that I think we could have won that game."

When we reminded Coach McKnight about how quickly his team had "rebuilt" from one year earlier, to wind up back at the State Finals again, McKnight agreed that rebuilding is exactly what they'd done. And that rebuilding has continued throughout last season, this past summer, and it will continue again into next season.  "We may do very well again this year; I think we'll lose some games early on, just a couple, but by the time the playoffs come around, I've told the players we don't want to lose that last one," McKnight told us.  "We're going to be really good this year, but next year I think could be the best team at Mater Dei ever.   Ever.  Really, they could be the best group of any," McKnight said.

Those are pretty strong words from a man who has been coaching the top athletes in Orange County, and on the West Coast for the past 18 years. McKnight has seen some impressive players come through the doors, LaRon Ellis, Reggie Geary, Miles Simon, Schea Cotton, Kevin Augustine, and others.  He coached Jason Quinn, currently an assistant in his 6th year in the program. Mater Dei is what most high school basketball programs only dream about. There are some college teams who would like to be Mater Dei. The team will carry 15 players on the roster; they'll have five assistant coaches, statisticians, managers, trainers, first-class transportation, and a band and cheerleading squad which would put many Pac-10 programs to shame.  The school has achieved some incredible records too: 13 CIF Southern Section Titles in Division I-A; 5 Division I Southern Regional Titles in the State Championship Tournament, and Three State Championships (1987, 1990, and 1995). McKnight has a record of  509-47 in 18 years, and it's one of the best in all of basketball among active high school coaches, perhaps only exceeded by a few such as the legendary Morgan Wooten.

"I just love this school and the athletic program. 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 unbelievable," McKnight said.  Two years ago, McKnight told us that he had always wanted to get into coaching, even at an early age.  He's coached in quite a few places too, including youth leagues all the way to the college level. 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 moved over to Mater Dei's head coaching job in 1982. .

This year Mater Dei will be playing in the newly configured four-team Catholic league against Servite, Santa Margaria, and St. John Bosco. It's a small league, and it offers a small schedule of only 6 league games, but the advantage of such a small league schedule is the number of other high profile events that a team like Mater Dei can participate in.  Those high profile events include the Glendora Tip-Off Tournament, the Ocean View Tournament of Champions, the Fort Meyers Holiday Basketball Classic, which will have some of the top teams in the country, the Nike San Diego Holiday Championships, the Double Pump adidas Hoop Challenge and the Nike Dream Classic over the MLK, Jr., holiday weekend, the SoCal Classic (sponsored by Artesia and Long Beach Poly) in late January and finally the Nike Extravaganza where they'll play De La Salle at the Pyramid in early February right before the Southern Section playoffs start. This is a big time program, with some big time players. 

"We have such a versatile group this year, and we are so deep, it's almost obscene," McKnight told us, only half-jokingly.  "We can throw so many looks at other teams; we can go big, we can go fast, we can mix it up.   There's really not much we can't do.  I don't remember a team this deep, at every position, and the best thing is that most of them will still be here next year, and they'll only get better," McKnight said.

Last year, seven seniors graduated, and one transferred out, but it will hardly make a dent in the lineup this year.  Gone to graduation are Bryan McKnight (5'-11" F), Steve Henderson (6'-5" SF/PF) Imran Sufi (5'-10"   PG), Derrick Mansell (6'-2"  PG), Travis Kasper (6'-0"  SG/PG), Mike Bayer (6'-7" PF), and Chris Mello (6'-5" Sr. F);  and there's an eighth player who also left, Adam Tancredi (6'-9" Jr. C) who has transferred to Rancho Santa Margarita HS.  Here's the roster or 1999-2000

Lance Soderberg 6'-8" So. SG/SF/PF
Geoff McKnight 5'-10" Sr. PG/SG/SF
Pat Haddan 6'-1" So. PG/SG
Nick Farano 6'-0" Sr. G/F
Ricky Porter 6'-2" Jr. PG/SG
Cedric Bozeman 6'-5" Jr. PG
Steve Scoggin 6'-0" Sr. SG
Travis Gabler 6'-2" Jr. SG
Brian Baker 5'-10" Jr. PG
Jamal Sampson 6'-11" Jr. C
Mike Strawberry 6'-5" So. SF/SG
James Webster 6'-3" So. 6'-3" G
Christian McGuigan 6'-3" Sr. SG/SF
Erik Soderberg 6'-9 1/2" Jr. F/C
Harrison Schaen 6'-8" Fr. SF/PF

So how good is this team?  Their intended starting point guard has already committed to play for the UCLA Bruins, and he hasn't even played the first game of his junior season;  he missed about half of his freshman and sophomore seasons, and in total has probably played about one year total of high school basketball. But is Cedric Bozeman really, truly a point guard?    McKnight is aware that some have said Bozeman is really more of a two guard than a point, but he is firm in his convictions that Bozeman is really a point guard.

"I absolutely think Cedric is one of the best true point guards on the West Coast," McKnight told us. "He's quick, a tremendous defender, and he does what every point guard should do, he finds the open man,"   McKnight said. "Cedric is so smooth, so polished, and he can either take the shot or if he has to pull up his dribble, his great size allows him to throw it over most other defenders to an open man or take the shot."  Bozeman created quite a stir in September when he gave UCLA a verbal commitment, and McKnight clearly thinks the Bruins have gotten their point guard of the future. "He's a very special player and other than the playoffs, he was our starting point guard last year. With him healthy, I have no doubt we would have won the State title again last year."  Bozeman suffered a season ending leg injury last season, and had surgery and has just been cleared to return to practice. "He can't have contact yet, but he'll be back at full strength by December 1.  But when he's healthy, he'll be the key to our team this year.  I don't mean to put too much pressure on one guy, especially since we have so many options, but he's really going to be key to our season."

Until Bozeman returns, Mater Dei will have its pick from a couple of other capable players, including Patrick Haddan, who ran the point for most of the summer at some of the bigger tournaments Mater Dei played in, and Geoff McKnight, a tremendously talented shooter who will also provide some help at the one. "Patrick is very athletic, and young. He has a lot of potential if he continues to work hard and can limit his turnovers," McKnight said.  Haddan played in the Long Beach Fall Hoops Showcase and at the Pump Fall Premier Tournament for BWBA, and he's currently rated as the No 2 PG in the sophomore class by Fullcourt Press Recruiting, sandwiched between David Gale (6'-0" So. PG) Buckley and Jason McKinney (5'-11" So. PG) Westchester.   About Geoff McKnight, Gary told us, "He's a really special player, a very talented baseball player who will also see some time backing up at the point guard and shooting guard spots this year. He had an excellent summer, including hitting 8 three pointers in a game. While he's not as good a shooter as his brother Clay (who set the all time Mater Dei career record for three point scoring with 272 career points and the season record of 131 threes), he's pretty good."  

Mater Dei has another option at the point, and that's Brian Baker.  "Brian struggled a bit last year and in the summer, and he's decided to play football.  He's getting a lot of time with the football team, and the way they're playing, the football season won't be over until Christmas time, so my only real concern with Brian is that by the time he heals up and gets back into shape for basketball, it will probably be in January sometime, and by then we'll already have some guys who will have established themselves firmly. But he's very talented, a really athletic guy with a great handle, and he will definitely get to play."  

At the two guard spot, Mater Dei has just as many options, including Steve Scoggin, the likely starter.  Scoggin is not being recruited as highly as he was last year, in part because he had a shooting slump, and in part because a lot of the schools that had been talking to him are now taking a wait-and-see approach. "I think he'll definitely be a player at the next level, and when things shake out in the spring, he'll be getting a lot more recruiting interest. He was, after all, the Orange County Player of the Year in our division, and with his scoring ability, he'll certainly break Clay McKnight's career record for threes," McKnight said. "He's already passed the SAT, and is getting some attention from schools he's interested in attending, including Arizona State, Wisconsin and several Big West school, and he'll sign somewhere as a scholarship player," McKnight told us.  Others who will likely see time at the two are Christian McGuigan, a very tough young man who personally took Casey Jacobsen out of his game in the playoffs. "He's just such a tough young man, strong and he'll be a major asset for us again this year," McKnight said. "I think Christian might start if somebody goes down with an injury, and it's always possible that I'll end up alternating Chris as a starter anyway."  James Webster is another young tough sophomore, who plays much like McGuigan, and he probably won't see a lot of time until he's a junior, but he'll gain valuable experience this coming season. He's also a star baseball player, a left hander who will continue to improve. Travis Gabler will also see some time at the two. "He's a real shooter, a solid worker, and he's also the kind of player who might start as well, and will most likely be a definite starter as a senior," Mc Knight said. "He had a huge summer for us in Vegas, and at several other tournaments, and he's really improved." 

At the wing/forward positions, Mater Dei is also incredibly deep and talented, and this spot will most likely come down to a battle between Ricky Porter and Mike Strawberry.  Ricky is an "instant scorer, whether he's at the two or three," McKnight said.  He's a really talented  wing player with a good outside shot out to three, but who is more of a slasher with good rebounding and defensive skills.  Strawberry has worked as hard as anyone on the team this past summer to work his way into being a true 3 man.  "I finally convinced him that at 6'-5" he's not going to be a post player, and he's worked very hard on his perimeter game, improving his shot and rebounding skills," McKnight said.   "Both of them are great scorers and defenders. I may just rotate them both and start each of them in alternating games.  We'll have to see how it works out," said McKnight. Nick Farano,a senior, will provide some backup off the bench, but candidly given the battle for time between more well-known and a bit more talented players, it will be tough for him to see minutes.

At the four, Mater Dei has two very strong and talented young underclassmen:  Harrison Schaen and Lance Soderberg.  About Harrison, McKnight repeated what he told us during August when we saw him at the Double Pump Best of Summer:  "Harrison could be the best player I've ever coached, ever seen at Mater Dei. By the time he leaves, he'll be All-CIF, All-State, and a huge recruit for the colleges. He's got the best hands of any big man I've coached. He runs, he's tall, and he's smart."    Harrison will likely start as a freshman, something exceedingly rare at a program like Mater Dei. We've been following his game since he was in grade school, and he's among the most talented freshmen in the country.  His club team, Pat Barrett's SCA (which for a time had Trayvon Williams, Travonte Nelson, Richard Cobbs, Wesley Washington, Ray Ray Reed, and Jason Goodman, among others) were three-time AAU national champions. He's been ranked and rated as one of, if not the, most talented freshmen in the country by most of the recruiting and scouting services who rank players, including Prep Stars, Hoop Scoop, and others.  "Harrison has a chance to be the best player we've ever had at Mater Dei.   Period." McKnight said.

He's also really high on Lance Soderberg, the "little" brother of Erik Soderberg, one of Mater Dei's talented juniors.   "Lance is really a diamond in the rough," McKnight observed. "He is really big, and a lot more mobile and agile than Erik, and he can really play almost any position except point guard.  He's also going to keep growing, at least that's what the doctors say. Right now he can shoot, defend, post up, block shots, and best of all he's really confident. He's an excellent perimeter shooter, sort of a Jason Kapono type of player, or thinking back a while, more like a Cliff Pruitt type.  He is going to be big time."

At center, look for Jamal Sampson and Erik Soderberg.   How good is Jamal?  Like Bozeman, McKnight can't really seem to contain his enthusiasm: "He's already had a ton of interest from some of the biggest of the big-time major programs--Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, and many others.  He could just be the most dominant center we've had here," McKnight said.  "If he stays healthy, and continues to improve, he's going to be among the truly elite of college basketball and he brings to the party what no one else really does, and that's he's a pure shot-blocker who can also score."   McKnight didn't mention the other recruiting speculation, involving Sampson, Bozeman, and Josh Childress (6'-6" Jr. SG) from Mayfair and Tyson Chandler (7'-0" Jr. C) from Compton Dominguez, who, like many others on this team also have more in common than just Mater Dei basketball--they've also all played on various Pat Barrett-coached SCA (or now So.Cal.Hoops) teams, and there is much speculation that Barrett is actively helping UCLA get the others in the "Fab 4;"  additionally, they've all been seen taking unofficial visits to UCLA during the past month, and we wouldn't be at all surprised if a few more, including possibly Sampson, Childress and Chandler don't also commit early to the Bruins.

Erik Soderberg will also get plenty of time this year. "He's the best post defender we have, and pretty soon, a lot of colleges are going to realize that too," said McKnight.  "Erik is about 6'-10" right now, and his doctors figure he'll get to about 6'-11" before he stops growing.  Right now he's getting a lot of interest from schools like Northwestern, Arizona State, and several Big West schools.

As we noted last year, McKnight doesn't coach this group alone. He's had constant assistance from Dave Taylor, who is also going into his 18th 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."  Mark Soderberg, Brendan Mostman, Jason Quinn, and John Tufo have all been instrumental as assistant coaches in the past few years. "I looked around at most of the good college programs, and great high school programs," McKnight told us last season, "and what I saw was that most successful teams had a player-to-coach ratio of about two-to-one,  and there was just about one coach for every player on the floor at any one time."  But Gary was also quick to point out that a committee system isn't necessarily how the coaching gets done. "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."

Mater Dei's schedule for the year is as competitive as you'll find for any high school team.  first, they'll open against Santa Clara, last year's D-V State Champs, on Friday November 26 at Mater Dei.  Then they'll play Santa Barbara at the Glendora Tip Off Classic, a series of three games at Glendora on December 1.  From Monday December 6, through the 11th they'll be at the Tournament of Champions at Ocean View, and then they'll play Canyon (Anaheim) at Santa Margarita on Tuesday, December 14 at 6:00 p.m. From December 17-24, they'll be in Florida at the Fort Meyers Classic, and then they'll return to play at the Nike San Diego Championships which will be held from December 27-30, and which will go head to head with the Artesia-hosted Best in the West Tournament.   On January 1, 2000, Mater Dei will play in a doubleheader against Fontana at Ocean View HS, which will also feature Glendora and another team from the Riverside-San Bernardino area.   Here's what the rest of the schedule looks like after these games:

Day Date Opponent Site Time
Tues. 1/4 Foothill Foothill 7:30 p.m.
Wed. 1/12 Servite * Bren Center, UCI 7:30 p.m.
Fri. 1/14 Santa Margarita * Santa Margarita 7:30 p.m.
Sat. 1/15 Los Alamitos adidas/Double Pump Hoop Challenge
(MLK Holiday) @ CSUDH
TBA
Mon. 1/17 TBA Nike Dream Classic (MLK Holiday)
@ CSULB Pyramid
TBA
Fri 1/21 St. John Bosco* St. John Bosco 7:00 p.m.
Fri. 1/28 Servite* Servite 7:00 p.m.
Sat. 1/29 University (Irvine) SoCal Classic @ LA Southwest College TBA
Wed 2/2 Santa Margarita* Bren Center, UCI 8:00 p.m.
Sat. 2/5 De La Salle Nike Extravaganza  @ CSULB Pyramid TBA
Wed. 2/9 St. John Bosco* Mater Dei 7:00 p.m.

This is going to be a very exciting season for the Monarchs. Whether they have the talent, the energy and the drive to win that last big one is something that we're all waiting to find out.  Other teams, like Simi Valley, Fontana, Long Beach Poly, Westchester, Clovis West and a few others will be waiting to find out too when the State Regional tournament gets going in March.  We'll be watching too. 

 The Swish Award
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